Trade-offs. Always trade-offs. In a liberal democracy, who takes precedence: the individual or the community? It depends on who – and, as recent events have shown, when you ask.
When our Founders wrote our Constitution and Bill of Rights, they assumed the individual was supreme. Every person,* they implied, was born with innate civil and human rights no matter to what community that person belonged.
Of course, the idea of the supreme individual wasn’t something hatched in the hot summer of 1787. Among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were a bunch of amateur philosophers, well-read and familiar with the best ideas of the age. That included the work of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued everything is and must be based on the individual. For them, society arose of necessity when individuals voluntarily gave up a share of their individual rights to receive the safety and security of the community. To do things together that we can’t do individually.
It’s a trade-off. Both the philosopher-writers and the politicians organizing a new nation recognized that: Sometimes the individual takes precedence over the community. Sometimes it’s the other way around. But neither way is absolute. Neither is correct in every circumstance.
And what a circumstance we are in right now! The coronavirus infects – and sometimes kills – individuals and, through them, communities. If we want our democratic society to survive this difficult time intact, individualism may need to temporarily take second place.
My right to go where I want when I want and do exactly as I please cannot take precedence.
Don’t worry about a slippery slope. We’re always on a continuum. We adjust our position one direction or the other based on the circumstances. We give up our right to drive as fast as we want and on whichever side of the road we want to preserve our own safety and that of the community. And we give up our right to say radical or nasty things when those things lead to action that endangers someone else’s life.
We may, temporarily, need to give up even a share of our right “peaceably to assemble” to protect groups from the virus carried by individuals. The trade-offs are real, and we do well to think about them even as we make them.
In the coming months, we want to do all we can to return to something resembling normal. We have a far better chance of retaking our full panoply of individual rights then if we trade off a few of them for the good of the community now.
It’s part of our civic responsibility. And it’s part of what it means to be part of a national community – a national community that values every individual.
Charlyne Berens, a retired newspaper editor, professor, and associate dean of the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications, is passionate about the First Amendment and freedom of expression. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.
(*- Slaves and Natives were the big exceptions to this philosophy, of course, to our eternal shame. And women weren’t equal, either – also shameful.)