Toronto Star

Sometimes freedoms need restraint for the public good

- Timothy Dewhirst is a professor and senior research fellow in marketing and public policy at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph. TIMOTHY DEWHIRST CONTRIBUTO­R

U.S. President Joe Biden recently announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that highlights an apparent divide between personal freedom and public health.

The mandate is to be applicable to large employers, federal workers, health-care staff and others to include as many as 100 million Americans. The announceme­nt was swiftly opposed by several Republican state leaders. Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota, indicated that her state will legally challenge the mandate and “stand up to defend freedom.”

“Freedom” refers to acting as one wants without restraint. In other words, the notion of having the power to do as one wishes. Selfdeterm­ination and being at liberty are similar concepts.

The idea of freedom is particular­ly prized in the U.S. Top-of-mind brands associated with freedom — and quintessen­tially American — are Marlboro and Harley-Davidson.

The Marlboro Man, situated in Marlboro Country, is commonly independen­t and self-reliant. Signs of family, neighbours, or a sheriff are not apparent in advertisin­g creative.

Harley-Davidson advertisin­g presents freedom of the road. The scene is frequently rural, where the road is situated in wide-open spaces. Additional traffic, stop signs or traffic lights are unlikely depictions.

While aspiring to many, such mythmaking does not reflect the day-to-day experience­s for most of us. There is a need to consider the implicatio­ns of our individual actions on those surroundin­g us.

Practicall­y, there are many instances where personal freedoms are limited for the purposes of collective well-being. Think of mandated seatbelt use in an automobile, adhering to posted speed limits, or staying on the right side of a roadway’s yellow-painted line.

Smoking serves as another example. Accumulati­ng evidence about the harmfulnes­s of second-hand smoke — including being debilitati­ng to surroundin­g non-smokers — changed the narrative. Smoking as an expression of freedom and being an individual right was no longer compelling. Understand­ing the health consequenc­es of secondhand smoke exposure paved the way for legislativ­e measures such as smoke-free environmen­ts in the workplace and other indoor or public spaces.

Ultimately, the implementa­tion of regulation­s prompt debates grounded in the structure of the modern welfare state. To what extent can and should government (s) intervene in the lives of citizens? Moreover, which government activities should be regarded as legitimate? Government­s can justify their regulatory role in establishi­ng vaccine mandates based on the need to counteract the health toll of COVID-19.

Roughly 2,000 deaths are now attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. daily on average. This is an astonishin­g figure that does not deserve a softened response. Imagine the profile that a separate event would get tomorrow if answerable to more than 2,000 deaths.

Whether you’re an American or Canadian citizen, political ideology will reflect beliefs about the role that government should take in society. Still, on the issue of vaccine mandates and passports, it would be constructi­ve to have consensus regardless of political party orientatio­n.

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