THR Web Features   /   May 21, 2020

The Price of Freedom

“Essential” turns out to be not an honorific but an obligation.

Eric B. Schnurer

( A grocery store cashier in Stamford, Connecticut; Tyler Sizemore, Connecticut Magazine.)

The nationwide debate over “reopening” the economy has been framed as a conflict between two freedoms—a fundamental right to work and a countervailing right to be free from a deadly disease. But reopening isn’t really about either the freedoms of those who want to go back to work and risk their lives, or those who don’t: It’s about the freedom of those who must.

Usually, the freedom debate in this country pits conservatives who, roughly speaking, conceive of freedom as the absence of government interference, against liberals who argue that it includes being free of the indirect compulsions of economics—which conservatives reject. The reopening debate makes this distinction harder to maintain.

The main issue is not whether the government can keep large numbers of Americans under lockdown against their wishes—throngs of beachgoers in Florida and California, and protest-attendees in Michigan and Pennsylvania, make clear that, in the freedom-loving USA, it effectively can’t. Nor is the issue whether the lifting of government mandates or guidance can restore the economy that the president and his supporters want by November: It’s doubtful government can pull that off, either, since the vast majority of Americans were shutting down most consumer activities even before shutdown orders came, and will likely continue to do so.

Rather, the issue is whether, and which, Americans will be compelled to work and endanger their lives against their wills and to serve the interests and desires of others—with the government placing the force of law behind the latter.  

Just last week, for instance, Elon Musk announced his intention to reopen Tesla’s main manufacturing plant despite local health officials in California having claimed this would be unsafe for workers; President Trump chimed in, “California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW.”  What this really means is, “California should let Tesla & @elonmusk tell workers they must show up at the plant regardless of safety concerns, or else lose both their jobs and their unemployment insurance.”  Which is basically what Pennsylvania state officials declared recently. Meanwhile, Trump, who has been reluctant to use his authority to order businesses to produce the ventilators, tests or vaccines Americans need, was quick to require workers in Midwestern meatpacking plants to continue working despite widespread coronavirus outbreaks in these facilities.

In short, the question is now squarely put whether the full force and power of the state will be deployed behind those who can wield the economic compulsion of threatening to fire you if you won’t work in a life-threatening workplace, or whether our laws and government will stand with those who are the objects of such compulsion. It’s pretty clear in which direction—despite the majority of public sentiment—this is headed.

That might not be problematic if those who simply wanted to get back to work themselves could do so, while those who preferred not to contract, or spread, a deadly virus could remain at home—and enjoy the freedom and economic means either to work remotely or not at all. Unfortunately, such freedom isn’t available to everyone: It’s largely the province only of those who have benefited from the growing wealth and flexibility of the New Economy, a source of division that has fueled the resentment and revolt of many of those now protesting the economic shutdown. The virus both underscores and deepens those divisions.

But there’s a third group: the people we’ve deemed “essential.” Essential turns out to be not an honorific but an obligation. Most of those caught in this position are woefully undercompensated for what they do despite being deemed, unlike the rest of us, essential to society’s continued functioning.They also happen to tend to come from traditionally less-powerful demographics, disproportionately women and people of color.

Many of them would prefer not to be working right now, because they know their lives are endangered. They keep doing it anyway—some out of a sense of duty, most because they will lose their jobs, and their ability to survive economically, if they don’t keep working. They labor with their hands, whether lifting packages, driving trucks, picking or packing foodstuffs, maintaining vehicles, or inserting IVs. They don’t have the luxury some have of both staying home and continuing to earn a living: They must work, and risk losing their lives, or decline to do so and lose their livelihoods. “Essential worker” really means “mandatory worker.”

Ultimately, the point of reopening is not to free voluntary workers but to place more into the category of “mandatory worker”: If your workplace is now reopened, you must return to it, or lose your job. Sure, plenty of people are dying to get back to work–once the reopeners have their way, however, many more will be dying from getting back to work. But—and here’s where the real issue of “freedom” comes in—they will have no real choice.

Whatever motivates those going to rallies and demanding their own freedom, those surreptitiously funding and organizing the current reopening movement—shadowy billionaires and right-wing organizations–and many of their allies in Washington want to strip others of the ability to avoid life-threatening working conditions. They want to allow businesses both to demand that workers return and to avoid any liability for what befalls the workers who do. And they want to roll back the programs that temporarily provide these workers at least a modicum of income support—and thus economic choice—to an earlier time before the rise of the welfare state, government regulation, and the modern era. 

It was a time when, to paraphrase Anatole France, the law, in its majestic equality, allowed rich and poor alike to go to work in factories and mines and on farms where the machinery and conditions presented a high likelihood of their being maimed or killed. Over time, the majority of Americans came rightly to see this as no real freedom at all. 

But the proponents of this crabbed definition of freedom see the current moment as its hour come ’round at last. And that’s the discussion of freedom we ought to be having right now.