The conservative excuses for selfishness

Posted on October 6, 2021

What are conservatives thinking when they say, with colossal irony, “my body, my choice”? How do they justify going unvaccinated and maskless when vaccines and masks are extremely protective and practically free?

The answer is, conservative “thought” has devolved to pure selfishness, even when what they want is not actually to their benefit. They will, of course, claim their position is a defense of “rights” while simultaneously absolving themselves of responsibilities.

But when are political and legal “rights” at stake? Only in limited situations. Rights are either fundamental, like constitutional or human rights, or they are granted by statute.

Fundamental rights include freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Statutory rights include most situations where people can file suit; protections against discrimination; most remedies for employees, consumers, homeowners and healthcare patients; and nearly every economic situation that individuals can enforce.

When conservatives wail that government action violates their “rights” or “freedoms,” they’re almost always claiming that it’s a matter of fundamental rights—because if they actually had some statutory right, conservative groups would step in and help them.

In fact, there is no fundamental right to go unvaccinated or maskless when the government has a legitimate public health reason to require vaccine or masks. This is for the same reason that there is no fundamental right to drive while intoxicated or impaired; sell adulterated medicines, spoiled groceries or dangerous toys; pollute our air, water or soil; and practice medicine, dentistry or law without a license.

The underlying reason for government requirements is to protect other people—the common good. It’s not about an individual accepting the risk of getting COVID, just as it’s not a matter of such a person accepting the risk of hurting her/himself while drunk driving. It’s about protecting other people in the community, of course.

A bit more subtle than the average conservative excuse, is George Will’s recent essay “The pursuit of happiness is happiness.”  Referring to the Declaration of Independence, Will says “the United States…is founded on…the proposition that people should be free to pursue happiness as they define it.”

And yet, Jefferson could not have meant that everyone has a God-given right to do whatever makes them happy, (what George Will implies). Too many of today’s conservatives define happiness as unbridled discrimination and pollution, unfair business practices, and guns everywhere. The “pursuit of happiness” cannot mean that the self-serving are free to run roughshod over the common good.

In fact, George Will is reading our founding philosophy the same way conservatives read the Second Amendment – by ignoring an earlier part of the same sentence, which in this case proclaims that “all men are created equal.” Read the whole sentence and it becomes clear that Jefferson was not saying people have an unchecked right to pursue happiness, they have an equal right to do so. In today’s language, we’d call that equal opportunity.

Contemporary conservative thinking, at best, is based on this linguistic sleight-of-hand; it’s all about promoting the happiness of a few to the detriment of the many.