Limiting individual freedoms is part of the government’s job

Published: 07/01/2022 19:00:47

Modified: 07/01/2022 19:00:07

There is a lot of discussion going on about the government’s violation of individual freedoms.

Whether at the national or local level, strident, often angry voices denounce government intrusion. However, any such discussion must begin with a fundamental recognition: government at all levels necessarily limits individual freedoms. This is part of its purpose, the role for which it was created. In order to facilitate the community, we establish governments to create rules limiting individual freedoms.

In Northampton at present, this discussion involves public input to our Board of Health on whether to require proof of COVID vaccination in order to access public places. In doing so, the Board of Health decides whether to add to one of the largest categories of government rules: those that place constraints on our individual freedoms in order to cultivate greater public safety.

The existing rules in this category require us to drive on the right side of the roads even though our preference may be different. We are expected to limit our driving to the speeds that the government establishes as safe, even if we are certain that we are able to drive safely faster – and we can be fined or even lose our right to drive if we don’t comply. We have to make sure our cars pass inspection even though we as individuals think our tires have enough tread and our leaky exhausts aren’t bad enough yet.

We are forced to restrict our individual freedoms in hundreds of ways in order to live in a community.

We can, and should, debate which situations pose a sufficient risk to public safety to require a rule. We can highlight the ripple effects and unintended consequences of particular rules. We can argue that some rules should allow some exceptions. We can present facts that support the rule change. However, we cannot say that the government is wrong to enact rules that it believes in good faith to be necessary to protect public health and safety. It’s their job.

Most of us who grew up when poliomyelitis, measles, mumps and other diseases were major threats, were not only tolerant of government rules mandating vaccination (e.g. for entry to the school) ; we were relieved and deeply grateful that such a life- and society-changing technology had emerged. Although, for example, the World Health Organization records more than 140,000 annual deaths from measles in other countries, it is perhaps understandable that many American citizens today consider our society relatively free of diseases as normal.

However, those working in public health have made it their task to recognize how recent an achievement is and how best to avoid a return to darker times. Members of the Northampton Board of Health, two MDs and two PhDs, are all volunteers serving our community. We have good reason to trust their judgment on these things.

When governments create rules, there are always trade-offs. The fact that a given rule has drawbacks is normal and is not proof that the rule is wrong. Our Board of Health is doing a very difficult thing: deciding how to weigh the pros and cons of a constraint on individual freedoms. It’s easy for those of us who aren’t on the board to express opinions and disregard all sides and factors. I don’t envy the Board of Directors for taking on this challenge and consider their efforts to get it right.

Here in Northampton, we expect our voices to be heard. How fortunate we are to have public servants who listen, wrestle with the many uncertain variables, and then, amidst the vortex of our conflicting voices, take a deep breath and make the call they deem best for our community. Whatever they decide, some of us will disagree, but we should all be grateful for their earnest efforts.

Now retired, Kevin Lake has lived in Northampton since 1978. He volunteers with several local non-profit organizations and is chairman of the Northampton Conservation Commission.

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