The President’s recent approbation of those who would protest against the orders to practice social distancing ignores both common sense and the essence of libertarianism. Whether either of these parties are aware or not, the conservative idea of individual liberty arises from the seminal essay, On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. He is very clear about its limits in this key section of the essay. This comes at a place in his essay following the enumeration of what constitutes individual liberty.

What I contend for is, that the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interests of others in their relations with him. Acts injurious to others require a totally different treatment. Encroachment on their rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights; falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them against injury—these are fit objects of moral reprobation, and, in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment. And not only these acts, but the dispositions which lead to them, are properly immoral, and fit subjects of disapprobation which may rise to abhorrence. Cruelty of disposition; malice and ill-nature; that most anti-social and odious of all passions, envy; dissimulation and insincerity; irascibility on insufficient cause, and resentment disproportioned to the provocation; the love of domineering over others; the desire to engross more than one’s share of advantages (the πλεονεξἱα [Greek: pleonexia] of the Greeks); the pride which derives gratification from the abasement of others; the egotism which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in its own favour;—these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character. (my emphasis)

There is a place for conservatism in government, for sure. It would not have survived for hundreds of years if it did not represent values and ideas well distributed through the polity. But  the conservatism of today in the US has strayed far, far from its Millsean, Burkean roots toward a self-contradictory set of principles. The demand of some for non-encroachment by others or the government denies that same freedom for those who are affected by their actions. There is nothing to stop such behaviors except moral suasion and some authority by the government, as Mill points out.

Our form of government places the seat of moral suasion squarely in the Office of the President and the source of legal authority in the Congress. Both have fled from their duties; the Congress by acting as if law-making was a zero-sum game. In early 2017, Senate majority leader McConnell said, “[W]inners make policy and losers go home.” His words echo those of Senator William Marcy who said in a debate in the Senate chamber in 1831, “[T]o the victor belong the spoils.” He was referring to the many positions that could be filled with followers of the victorious party. Now, 189 years later, it has taken on a much more general thrust.

The President, also, has abandoned his position of overseeing the moral base of the country. We are, in theory, a nation governed by law. His indifference to the inescapable logic in Mill is tearing the fabric of the country apart. We are now or are close to becoming exactly the kind of country that true conservatives would abhor. The label has become nothing but a sham, covering up a quest for power and domination. If it does nothing else, the corona virus scourge has torn off the would-be emperors’ clothes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *