Friday, April 2, 2021

What Does Vaccination Have To Do with Freedom?

How did getting vaccinated for Covid-19 get mixed up with freedom? I was pondering that as I read a piece in The Hill about Trump’s recent interview on Fox News. “I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” Trump said, before going on to add, “We have our freedoms, and we have to live by that. And I agree with that also.”

The Hill went on to quote Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, as saying “As long as we still live in a free country, then we can make those individual decisions.”

But, while some people insist on their fundamental freedom to refuse vaccination, others answer, “You might have the freedom to get your bad knee replaced or not, but you don’t have the freedom to refuse the Covid vaccine because you don’t have the freedom to infect me.” Seems like there are two completely different ideas of freedom here, no? How does that work?

Part of the problem, I think, is the English language’s inadequate vocabulary of freedom. While I was thinking about this, another item popped up in my inbox – a link to an article from the Russian opposition news outlet Meduza. Written by the philosopher Nikolai Plotnikov, it bore the title “How Russians See ‘Freedom’ Differently.”

Russians, as Plotnikov pointed out, have two words for freedom, volya and svoboda. Having lived several years in Russia myself, I was aware that those two words existed, but I had never thought much about their political implications. Volya, the older of the two words, means roughly “free will.” It calls to mind an unconstrained life on the open steppe, perhaps the image of the folk hero Stenka Razin, leader of a seventeenth century Cossack uprising against the Russian nobility. In Plotnikov’s view, whereas volya is something inherently Russian, svoboda is something Western, a concept of civic freedom. Svoboda, he says, “is inconceivable without respect for others’ freedom.”

In Russian popular usage, volya and svoboda don’t always quite line up with Plotnikov’s somewhat academic version of their meanings. You have, for example, svobodny clothing, meaning comfortable, and volny clothing, meaning a bid indecent. But this isn’t a Russian language lesson. What matters here is the usefulness of Plotnikov’s distinction for understanding the American vaccination debate. When an American like Rep. Biggs asserts his freedom to remain unvaccinated, he is thinking volya. His neighbor who says, “No, you don’t have the freedom to infect me,” is thinking svoboda.

To be sure, English also has two words, but our “freedom” and “liberty” don’t line up like that. As far as I can see, they are synonyms that both mean svoboda. When Americans need to make Plotnikov’s distinction, they either have to use circumlocutions or risk being imperfectly understood.

I’ve seen American libertarians struggle with this problem, hampered by the limits of our language. Orthodox libertarians definitely think in terms of civic freedom, svoboda. Their touchstone is the nonaggression principle – the maxim that it is impermissible to initiate physical harm against another person. Use of force is permissible only in self-defense. To refuse the vaccine and then sneeze in your neighbor’s face is clearly a violation of the nonaggression principle. Yet, others who call themselves libertarians glory in the right to be rude and crude, the right to hate, the right to do whatever they want whatever social standards say. Some of them don’t scruple at embracing Naziism, white supremacy, and other unsavory ideologies that, historically, are anything but nonviolent. Writing for the orthodox libertarian Foundation for Economic Education a few years ago, Jeffrey Tucker struggled for a term and came up with “brutalist libertarianism” – a good try, although it never caught on. Plotnikov makes it clear, though, that Tucker’s brutalist libertarians differ from the orthodox in that they think in terms of volya more than svoboda.

So, next time you are confused when some of your neighbors assert their right to forego vaccination in the name of freedom, while others, also invoking freedom, insist that everyone has a duty to be vaccinated, you can blame it on our English language. Even though, by some counts, English has more words than any other language, it lacks a clear distinction between volya and svoboda. But then, English is a free language in that, unlike French, has no Académie anglaise to tell us what words we can and cannot use. Who knows, maybe volya and svoboda will catch on yet, as have other Russian terms like sputnik and kompromat.

Previously posted at Ordinary Times. Reposted by permission.