America, as seen through the eyes of deTocqueville has emerged from the shadows of an abyss to a full-blown chasm.

De Tocqueville was convinced that outstanding men avoided elected office in order to pursue their private ambitions and careers. Those who did seek public office, he believed, were often poorly educated and open to corruption. Are we there yet?

On the other hand, de Tocqueville’s assessment of America was that of the place where people rise up to form groups or organizations to resolve common issues. Today we see division for the sake of personal liberty, self-interest, and aggrandizement. Rugged individualism rather than collectivism seems to rule the day.

Patrick Henry’s words of 1775 “Give me liberty, or give me death”, more than 200 years ago, has become the rallying cry for personal freedom as individuals choose not to wear mask as a way of quelling COVID 19. Death, over life, appears to be the new currency in the pursuit of individual happiness, liberty, and personal freedom.

It seems we have become a society so focused on self that we are willing to self-sacrifice even though it is destructive to the interest of self. What a paradox. Let me explain. For the sake of perceived liberty and personal freedom, there are those who refuse to wear masks even though there are clear risks not only to self, but to grandmas(pas), other family members and the broader society. The social contract where we look out for each other appears to no longer exist.

In another example, there is ample evidence that many of the folks who oppose(d) the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (denigratingly, referred to OBAMACARE) did so in the name of self-determination, while at the same time, leaving themselves vulnerable to the potential loss of economic, physical, and social well-being.

In one of his more audacious speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented that America is ‘Socialism for the Rich, Rugged Individualism for the Poor”. In other words, the poor are to pull themselves up by their bootstraps while those of means are naturally elevated, provided access to goods and services simply because of their status and wealth.

Not only was this a historical expectation, it was prophetic for the time in which we currently live. In a recent interview with President Trump where he was asked why there was no mandate for those attending his rallies to wear mask, the president, who is well cared for medically, maintains his social distancing, said ‘I don’t need to tell Americans to wear a mask, people are smart; they know how to make smart decisions for themselves’. At its best, such comment foments individualism, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you are on your own mentalities.

The argument of this essay is that excessive indulgence in individualism over collectivism weakens our social structure rendering the social contract of responsibility to each other null and void. Personal liberty, independence and self-direction seems to be emerging as the new social contract. But the social contract is not yet totally void; for the safety of others, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre.

But can you, is food for thought.  Have we arrived at a personal space where liberty and personal freedom permits one to yell fire in a crowded theater? Hopefully, that portion of our social contract is still intact, except as it relates to COVID 19 and wearing a mask.

Submitted by Viola W Lindsey, MSW ASW PhD

October, 2020