Sen. Christopher Bray: Of liberty and masks

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If government makes you wear a face mask to help ward off the spread of the coronavirus, has it trampled on your freedom, your personal liberty?

If government decides, instead, to forgo a legally enforceable mandate on mask wearing, has it trampled on your right or your neighbors' to stay healthy, to keep a job, to benefit from the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"?

This is the paradox of personal liberty, which George Washington clearly understood when he transmitted the newly drafted Constitution to Congress more than two centuries ago.

Liberty, he and the other founders recognized, is the freedom we give to each other by surrendering a little bit of our own. "Individuals entering into society," Washington wrote, "must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest."

This paradox is as true now as it was then. And COVID has made that clear.

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There is no such thing as absolute liberty; it's only obtained by surrendering some personal freedom to society, as society then becomes the guarantor of one's set of limited liberties. The alternative — absolute liberty — means stepping away from one's community to become entirely self-sufficient. Through community, we gain limited liberty in exchange for mutual benefits.

These mutual benefits provide for thousands of things that no one of us could afford on our own: schools, hospitals, roads and bridges, public transit, police, fire, rescue, parks and wilderness areas, and much more — things we can afford by acting in community.

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And to help us function well together as a community, we agree to rules, many of which balance personal freedom with the freedoms of others, including the freedom from harm that our actions might produce for others.

We all know this trade-off well: it's why we agree to drive on the right side of the road, obey speed limits, and invest in our communities by paying taxes.

Unless you intend to isolate yourself entirely, you are not going to keep coronavirus away. Someone with it need only breathe on you to pass it along. But you can help prevent yourself from spreading the disease to others by wearing a mask. And when everyone around you does the same thing, they have protected YOU. It's like freedom: you yield something to your community and gain something otherwise virtually unattainable.

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Right now, it's time for all of us to please wear a mask. It's time for a mandatory masking law in Vermont. It's time "to give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest."

And when we all step up in this very modest way, yes, we will have given away a little bit of freedom, and we will gain far, far more: the freedom of living as best we can with this disease amongst us.

Wear a mask.

Help save lives in your community — maybe, even, your own.

Christopher Bray represents Addison County, Huntington and Buel's Gore in the Vermont Senate.


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