“This is America. It’s a free country. You can do anything you want to do.” My football coach was explaining how life works. “But,” he continued, “you have to be willing to pay the price for it. There are always consequences to your actions.”

I’m not sure why he brought this up, or whether he even had a point in mind. But the connection between our decisions and actions and the outcomes we see have somehow stuck in a dark corner of my memory for 40 years.

We hear a lot about freedom, but not so much about responsibility and consequences. The idea of civics — the relationship between rights and duties of citizens — seems to have been lost. We want all of the benefits and none of the responsibility.

Image credit: oddsoxofficial

So we want lower taxes and smaller government and less bureaucracy, but we also want our government to protect us and provide services and infrastructure and make sure nobody is exploiting the benevolence of the state. We want to make our own decisions and run our own lives, but we want to get bailed out when those actions and decisions get us into trouble.

I was debating universal health care with a colleague years ago. “Can we agree that we want to live in a society where people get urgent health care when they need it? If your daughter gets in a horrible auto accident, is there any scenario in which you wouldn’t want her to get top-quality medical care immediately?” We agreed that we didn’t want to live in a place where they just leave people bleeding at the side of the road. “So really, we just have to figure out the best way to pay for it.” Participation in this society means you benefit from emergency health care. The fire department is going to come when you call them. The water comes on when you turn the spigot, and it goes away when you’re done with it. All of that comes with a cost, and part of the cost is putting up with each other even though it’s annoying and inconvenient, because we can do so much more together than we can do separately.

Our rights are important, but they end when they impinge the rights of others. So you have to stop shooting off fireworks at midnight because others have the right to sleep. You can’t drive through a school zone at 40 mph because kids have a right to not be mowed down by careless drivers. You have the right to own a gun. But if people die as a result of your right to own a gun, we have a problem, because they have a right to not get shot.

Right now, our school’s policy is that face masks are “strongly recommended.” That means we know that masks will help slow the spread of COVID, but we want to protect the rights of individuals to make their own decisions. Some have suggested that a mandate would be more appropriate. One of the services that governments provide is to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of the community, so individuals aren’t forced to make those decisions for themselves. But those decisions have consequences regardless of who makes them, and right now, the government would prefer that the individual takes the responsibility. So for now, it’s an individual choice.

Given the current quarantine guidelines for schools, it’s clear that the best way to keep schools open is for everyone to be vaccinated and/or wearing a mask. But our leaders have put that freedom — and responsibility — into the hands of the individual. Congratulations! You have the phenomenal cosmic power, and the itty bitty living space.

So everyone can make their own choice. Get vaccinated. Wear a mask. Keep schools open. Or, don’t. People will choose one path or the other, and we will collectively live with the consequences of our actions.

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