OPN woman looking anxious1-1583662529846
Near window sill. Beautiful pleasant mature woman wearing sweater standing near the window sill Image Credit: Getty

As the coronavirus continues to spread, the chances that any one of us will be placed in quarantine goes up considerably. I know that being locked away like that would drive me nuts. Two weeks subtracted from my life! Still, I’d accept the justice of my confinement because I would recognise that my liberty had come to pose a real danger to my fellow humans.

Now, let’s ratchet up the sacrifice: Suppose you were required by law to turn the thermostat up to 75 in the summer, and down to 66 in the winter, in order to reduce your carbon footprint. The principle is the same: Your freedom to live as you wish turns out to jeopardise public well-being.

I, for one, would bristle; I can’t stand being hot in summer. Maybe you wouldn’t mind. But what if you were also told that you had to eliminate most or all of the red meat from your diet?

At some point, presumably, things will get so bad that (a future) President Ocasio-Cortez manages to ram a green-enough new deal through Congress. Then we’ll adjust our thermostats and go two-thirds vegan


What if Greta Thunberg persuades President Sanders that we need to ration jet travel? At some point you’ll begin to think that the increasing globalisation of bad things like climate change and infectious diseases is threatening liberal society.

You’d have a point. At the foundation of classical liberalism is John Stuart Mill’s principle that every individual must be free to speak and act as he wishes “so long as he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgement in things which concern himself.”

Artificial distinction

For instance, drinking to excess, Mill said, deserves reprobation, but not prohibition; it’s a self-regarding act. But there’s a problem with this formulation: Even in his own time Mill was criticised for drawing a largely artificial distinction between behaviour which does and does not impinge on others. The filaments that bind people to one another are incomparably stronger today than they were in Victorian England.

What would Mill have said if England had had then, as it does now, a public health system in which everyone shared the cost of treatment for alcoholism? What would he have said about smoking if he knew about the effects of second-hand smoke? Indeed, second-hand smoke is rapidly becoming a metaphor for our time.

I first started fretting over this question a few weeks ago, when I went to a Manhattan high school where I serve as a volunteer writing tutor. I was working with a young woman who had written an essay weighing the evidence that we could reduce global warming by switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

She had learned that, thanks to the methane and nitrous oxide released by cows and manure, livestock is responsible for as large a fraction of CO2 emissions as the entire transportation sector (including air travel) — about a seventh. (In fact, the figure for livestock includes, among other things, the emissions caused by transporting meat and dairy products, which properly belongs under transportation.)

In order to take account of human frailty, including her own, the student advocated something called “the two-thirds vegan diet,” in which you get to eat meat and dairy one meal per day. I asked which meal she’d indulge her vices in.


“Really? What about lunch and dinner?”

“I guess I’d have salads.”

“I would never have the strength to do that.” I wasn’t kidding. I haven’t sworn off meat, even after reading the horror stories about the raising of poultry and livestock, and learning that an animal-protein diet is bad for the planet. But maybe I should; maybe, in fact, I will be compelled to.

Am I being too alarmist? Possibly. Sweeping legislative proposals like the Green New Deal [in the US] places virtually all of the burden on utilities and industry, rather than end users like us, by imposing a price on carbon so high that these businesses will be forced to switch to renewable energy by 2050.

A swift transition

The recently passed Dutch climate change law proposes to reduce emissions by half within a decade through a large increase in offshore wind production, a swift transition to electric cars and technical upgrades to electricity grids. But it’s unlikely the world will be able to get to net-zero without serious changes in personal behaviour.

The Green New Deal also mandates “sustainable farming,” which usually includes reductions in methane emissions from livestock, while the Dutch law takes aim at ham through limits to pork production.

The other obvious objection to my scenario would be, in effect, so what? The First Amendment doesn’t protect your right to eat steak; nothing in the Bill of Rights prohibits a quarantine. Whatever discomfort or vexation arises from these restrictions should hardly be classed as a violation of liberty.

Yet that’s not quite right. Very few of us care so much about our rights of speech or conscience to test their constitutional boundaries. There’s a reason people got so angry when Mayor Michel Bloomberg tried to ban the sale of large-size soft drinks; they were defending a right they actually cared about.

Indeed, Donald Trump is illiberal in every respect save for his single-minded commitment to private pleasures


Another great 19th-century liberal, Benjamin Constant, put the matter squarely. As a young man, Constant had watched the French Revolution, and then the Terror, unfold from the safety of Switzerland, and concluded that the most dangerous people are fanatics who tell the rest of us how to live; totalitarians, as we would learn to call them in the 20th century.

In a brilliant, now largely forgotten, lecture delivered in 1819, Constant wrote that the democrats of Greece and Rome, like the revolutionaries of his own day, “admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community.” By contrast, Constant wrote, “the aim of the moderns is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures, and they call liberty the guarantees accorded by institutions to those pleasures.”

Liberal individualism

Constant wasn’t thinking of Marie Antoinette’s right to play at shepherdess while her subjects starved, but the right to open a shop and build yourself a home rather than be drafted into Napoleon’s army spreading republicanism across the face of Europe. We moderns build institutions, and establish tacit norms, to guarantee the security of such private pleasures. That’s liberal individualism.

But what do we do once we see that some of those choices threaten the health and lives of others? We will have to strike a new equilibrium between what society has the right to demand of us and what we have a right to retain for ourselves.

But we’ve done that before. To take the most obvious example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt curbed the excesses of the marketplace in order to nurse a devastated economy back to health, thereby incurring the wrath of much of the business community.

F.D.R. was a liberal — that was the word he used to describe himself — but he was willing to restrict some liberties in order to advance larger ones. A liberal, as he once put it, was prepared to use government to ensure the ordinary citizen “the right to his own economic and political life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Liberal societies, in short, have always faced the problem of second-hand smoke, but what once was exceptional has now become endemic. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as F.D.R. put it, more prescient than he knew. In the cataclysm of the Depression, the president was able to summon up the sense of collective purpose needed to embark on large-scale change.

Our own crisis, of course, still appears to many far too remote for any such call to sacrifice. To make matters worse, we’ve elected as president a libertine devoted not to fostering a spirit of collective purpose, but to his right to do anything he pleases. Indeed, Donald Trump is illiberal in every respect save for his single-minded commitment to private pleasures.

Green New Deal

Can we forge a new equilibrium before Miami is under water? I would like to think we’ll do so as part of a larger process of democratic deliberation. The Green New Deal envisions a 10-year phase of “transparent and inclusive consultation,” which sounds just about right.

I note, however, that the authors seem more committed to consulting with “vulnerable communities” and “worker cooperatives” (I didn’t know we had that many) than with recalcitrant carnivores, or for that matter with energy companies. That does not put one in mind of F.D.R.

The Dutch can reach consensus on painful social questions because they’ve spent the last thousand years working cooperatively to build dykes; the climate accord adopted last year came after a full year of discussion among representatives of all interest groups.

That’s not how American democracy works, and especially so in recent years. We allow those interest groups to wage a pitched battle using all the money and influence they can muster against one another.

Legislation emerges only after a war of attrition. That’s a very self-defeating way of doing business when all parties must be called on to sacrifice. At some point, presumably, things will get so bad that President Ocasio-Cortez manages to ram a green-enough new deal through Congress. Then we’ll adjust our thermostats and go two-thirds vegan the same way we got used to the chaos and tedium of airport security check-ins: We’ll have no choice.

Or just maybe we’ll rise to the occasion: With the flood upon us, we, too, will learn how to build dykes together.

— James Traub is the author of “What Was Liberalism: The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.”

More on the topic