Current Events

The Freedom to Make Mistakes?

I recently heard someone say that having freedom means having the freedom to make mistakes.1 This was mentioned in the context of mask mandates during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

This seemed like a reasonable opinion at first, but something about it gnawed at me. After some rumination, I think I know why. It’s because it’s a kindergarten-level understanding of freedom: A very simple jingoistic statement that kids might write in crayon, ignoring the context, meaning, and reality of what freedom means in society.

First, we do not have the freedom to make certain kinds of mistakes. Here in Tampa, a police officer was killed recently by a wrong-way driver. In fact, the officer may have saved lives by deliberately crashing into the wrong-way driver to stop them from hitting anyone else. Driving the wrong way is a mistake. No one should be afforded the freedom to make this kind of mistake, even in the most Ayn Randian of worldviews.

I know this is one example, but there are plenty of reasonable scenarios where mistakes must not be written off as freedoms. Is it freedom if a surgeon, air traffic controller, mechanic, NICU nurse, anesthesiologist, or engineer makes a mistake?

This brings me to my second point: personal responsibility. Claiming you have the freedom to make mistakes doesn’t absolve you from being accountable for your actions. A recent example is the horrific murders of eight people in Atlanta.2

When the suspect was arrested, a representative of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said the shooter was just “a really bad day.” We can quibble over semantics, of course, but that sounds a lot to me like dismissing the killings as a mistake.3

Finally, being unable (or unwilling) to make an evidence-based, timely, logical decision is not a mistake. It’s ineptitude. 

To a very wide degree, yes, I think we have the freedom to make mistakes. Let me say —  declaratively and loudly — that mistakes are essential human experiences that promote emotional and intellectual growth. But, c’mon, we all know those weren’t the types of mistakes that the original speaker was referring to.

No one has the freedom to jeopardize others with their mistakes. No one is immune to the consequences of their mistakes. And no one has the privilege of disguising willful ignorance as a mistake.

So put on the damn mask.

1 This is somewhat of a lie. I didn’t hear this from anyone directly. It was relayed to me by a relative’s spouse, who heard it from one of his relatives. 
2 The murders seem directed toward people of Asian descent, but the usual chorus of know-nothings are claiming the murders could not possibly be racially motivated.4
3 And let’s not overlook this: “Georgia Official who Said Spa Shooting Suspect Had a ‘Bad Day’ Appeared to Promote Racist COVID-19 Shirt.”
4 Then how do we explain a 150% increase in anti-Asian-American hate crimes over the past year?