The trade-off: Freedom and authority

The trade-off: Freedom and authority

Freedom is a funny thing. In excess, it leads to complacency and devaluation. In scarcity, it brings about urgency and desperation. Put this way, nowhere is freedom more taxed and toyed with than in the United States of America, a country that has so much going for it and yet is so conflicted within.

When the most powerful nation on earth cannot make the most of so much freedom, its rival and the second-strongest state in the world -- namely China -- stands to gain by offering less freedom and more authority with order and stability. The current case in point between the US and China's contrasting stress on freedom versus order are the vaccines and vaccinations against the Covid-19 pandemic.

From Atlanta at the heart of America's south to Boston as a hub of its northeast, fault lines still run deep some 160 years after the country's civil war. Divisive issues invariably involve freedom and its associated rights. People of colour here are still trying to live as freely, with the same rights, as others. Another perennial social division centres on how free a life in the womb should be when the choice of aborting it can be considered. Such polarisation has now moved to the ongoing pandemic and the vaccines to overcome it.

While the vast majority of the world's population is clamouring for the most efficacious vaccines and ample supplies of them, Americans are considering the right to be or not to be vaccinated. The country that has the world's best vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna to Johnson & Johnson is having a tough time getting its own people to agree to vaccination. It is mind-boggling.

The full vaccination rate in the US is just over 50%, whereas China has fully inoculated more than 70% of its 1.4 billion people. Since the pandemic began early last year, China's total Covid infections stand at just under 100,000, a number that sometimes has been registered daily in the US over the past 18 months. China's Covid death toll is altogether fewer than 5,000, not even half of Thailand's figure and miniscule compared to the more than 665,000 fatalities in the US. China has essentially nipped the pandemic in the bud after starting out as ground zero for the spread of the virus early last year.

For the US, its Covid numbers and related death toll are now mostly confined to the unvaccinated. Yet many Americans value their personal freedom and individualism over their health and well-being by opting not to vaccinate. It appears they would rather suffer or even die with liberty than live under greater authority.

The current big issue here is the US government's so-called "mandate" for masks and vaccines. In a major southern state like Georgia, masks seem to be worn only if they are mandated. Even so, some still do not obey the regulation, and others don't seem to mind those who do not comply. People here who don't wear masks are not given dirty looks like in Thailand. Freedom is so ingrained that even requiring mask-wearing is hard to enforce while peer pressure plays no visible role.

Requiring vaccines is even harder and more controversial. More and more people have been jabbed with either Pfizer or Moderna in a two-shot deal, with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson in the minority. Yet many Americans remain vaccine-free because they are free to forego the vaccine. As a result, the US is unlikely to reach critical mass of 70% or more for full vaccination of its 333-million population for longer than anticipated.

The irony is that the US has the best vaccines and no shortage of them but its complete vaccination rate will be slower than its peer group among advanced countries. Vaccination is so easy that in many cases you can book on the internet or simply walk into a local pharmacy, ask for and choose a vaccine, and proceed to be inoculated. A photo identification may be requested but no questions are asked. To think that Thailand is short of the preferred Pfizer and Moderna jabs is despicable because the Thai authorities should have done a better procurement job. To consider that the US has more vaccines than its people know what to do with is ridiculous in a different way.

But freedom also has many strengths. For foreigners entering the US, there is no quarantine. Only a negative swab PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is required prior to landing and, after getting through immigration, you are free to go about your business. It would be antithetical to American core values on rights and freedoms to quarantine people. So you either pass a Covid test and get in or you are not allowed in at all -- as is still the case with residents of the United Kingdom and Schengen countries in Europe.

Covid is not treated as a taboo in America, and there are no ubiquitous temperature checkpoints as in Thailand. People in the US carry on with their lives and deal with the virus along the way, including vaccination campaigns that offer prize money and other incentives.

By contrast, China mandates a two-week quarantine followed by another week of home isolation. The low-virus results have been impressive but the price people pay in China for such draconian restrictions against basic freedoms is incalculable. Whether it is worth sacrificing personal freedom for communitarian and harmonious order is hard to gauge because China's authoritarian state does not allow dissent and disagreement to be publicised and openly voiced.

These two contrasting systems revolving around freedom and individualism on one hand and order and communitarianism on the other have wider implications. As a country where people can go on main street and shout expletives of dissent and disaffection at their president and head of state without being legally charged, where peaceful demonstrators are not arrested, the US has much to offer to peoples elsewhere. But leading by example requires taming and narrowing internal divisions and polarisation.

Political legitimacy in China therefore comes from delivering economic growth and standards of living, whereas democratic legitimacy in the US derives from the polling booth. China privileges order and stability while the US champions individual freedom and basic rights. China needs to keep its system in working order to maintain its global appeal while the US needs to show that freedom and rights do not preclude stability and consensus. This is a consequential battle for Thailand where freedom and rights have been systematically violated, leading to a contested political order and prolonged instability.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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