The quote by Patrick Henry, "Give me Liberty, or give me death!" which he orated in 1775 at the Second Virginia Convention, has become a staple in the lexicon of the American patriot.
It was born out of Henry's conviction in the necessity for defense against the evils of the British crown. But like anything that is so rich with meaning as to be repeated and quoted for generations, it ironically loses that richness and meaning with time and is rendered intellectually stale. It takes some seriously dramatic events for slogans like these to be re-examined, to be made personal and dire. We are living in one of these times.
In recent weeks, protest have been held throughout our nation, some of the locations including Baton Rouge, San Diego and Madison. These protests, consisting often of Right-leaning folks, advocate for an end of government shutdowns and of opening the economy to begin recovering and striving to reach its potential again.
One interview that I saw on Facebook posted by NowThis News, a Left-leaning organization, was of a woman expressing that rather than a government check, she wants to go back to work. Of course, to me, as a Right-leaning Libertarian, that stance is admirable. It puts the self above government, even when the government is lending a helping hand. It is the ultimate demonstration of stoicism and individualism.
Although it is fascinating to see the Federal Reserve System and Congress throw the kitchen sink at the economy the fastest they probably ever have - with trillions of dollars attempting to stop the corporate cash crunch and provide payroll for small businesses - I am also experiencing a bit of Libertarian neuroticism.
Will this effect the status quo of government intervention into the economy and the lives of American people? How fast will states be put in shutdown in future possible crises? Are we moving toward a reality where those that do not follow restrictions will be arrested and jailed? These are the questions on my mind and with the level of government intervention that we are seeing, I believe they are valid.
This leads to an extremely uncomfortable but important conversation. It centers around the slogan I mentioned in the beginning of this column: "Give me Liberty, or give me death!" The slogan has appeared on signs in the anti-shutdown protests, as seen in a photo in The Wall Street Journal. Thus, a central question emerges from the occurrence of these protests: What is more important, life or death? Maybe some of you just snorted. How can this even be a question? Of course, human life is more important than death!
I beg you to reconsider the universality of your claim. Was life more important to Henry and the rest of those early American generals and revolutionaries? Not necessarily, not a life that would not let them enjoy liberty. Is life more important than death to men and women who enlist in the marines? I venture to say not. What about policemen? Firefighters? Astronauts, even?
A case can be made, that for each of these groups the importance of their lives is subordinate to other values, considering how dangerous each of those jobs are. For marines, that value is the importance of American freedom and security. For policemen and firefighters, it is the safety of American citizens. For astronauts, it is the progression of scientific discovery.
So what if, for the female protester in that NowThis News interview, life is less important than the financial security of her family, the nutrition that her kids receive or the mental health benefits that she experiences from a productive lifestyle? What if for the rest of those protestors, life is less important than seeing values of absolute American liberty persist in perpetuity?
You might think that these reasons to devalue life are careless or stupid or illogical. And in some sense, I might agree with you. But what authority do you, I or the government have to determine the level to which an individual values life? Well, the government has certainly taken on the right to that authority with countless business lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, but the morality of those actions remains questionable, at least to me.
Let me rephrase and refocus my earlier dilemma - what is more important, life or death - and ask a new question: Do Americans have a right to die from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) if they wish to take the risk and return back to a normal life?
I challenge you to answer this honestly.
Yan Leyzerovych is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in finance. His column, "American Insights," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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