From deep Maine comes the story of the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford who is reportedly at the source of the Covid-19 infection of 120 people. He held religious services in Sanford and officiated a marriage ceremony in the Katahdin area (of Thoreau fame). He does not encourage wearing masks and many of his flocks didn’t. His sermons apparently have political tones, which are not those of the Scottish Enlightenment. He warns against any future coronavirus vaccines, claiming they will contain “aborted baby tissue.” He believes that only God can control epidemics. Source: “Sanford Preacher Linked to Outbreak Tells Followers to Put Faith in God, Not Government,” WGME, September 2, 2020.

Their website is currently down. Your blogger risked life and limb to drive to Sanford and take the feature image of this post.

It is tempting to think that with friends like this pastor, individual liberty does not need enemies. Yet, it is impossible for us—we who prefer to use our liberty in different ways—to claim the freedom to do what we like while not recognizing the same freedom of choice to the Sanford Baptist pastor and those who choose to follow him. They are adults. (Children present special problems, but note that the danger would be much worse if, as some French revolutionaries wanted, children were raised not by their parents but by politicians, bureaucrats, and “the will of the people.”)

The ideal of individual liberty is predicated on the reasoned belief that, within very wide limits (murder, the war of all against all, and such, although admittedly the limits are not always easy to draw), all individuals should be free to live their own lives as they please according to their own beliefs; and that voluntary cooperation will lead to more prosperity and more individual flourishing than any other system. Or, as Adam Smith put it,

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.

The partial realization of this ideal since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution very strongly suggests that this system works as theorized, despite some inconvenience—including superstitious and unenlightened sects.

It is sad that some people have to die to demonstrate this, but then again they are adults. Politics is worse anyway as it forces people to flock manu militari to what they don’t want or believe in. Government actions during the pandemic crisis—from price caps to stiffening regulations and command-and-control allocation–provided numerous confirmations. And let’s remember John Stuart Mill’s argument: it is only by letting people defend strange opinions or pursue risky lifestyles that we can (provisionally) know what is true and what is false. In On Liberty (1859), he wrote:

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.  Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically. when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself.