Truckers and supporters block the access leading from the Ambassador Bridge, linking Detroit and Windsor, as truckers and their supporters continue to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions, in Windsor, Ontario, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Credit: Nathan Denette / AP

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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

Something big just happened in Canada.

It was far more than truckers protesting a vaccination mandate. It was a message about a fundamental change that seems to be spreading worldwide.

Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men.” What happened in Canada was a sign of the tide turning.

Canada differs from the U.S. Americans give the highest priority to   individual rights. Canada and some European democracies focus on the common good.

As a result of the global Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War of the 1940s, many democracies moved toward a greater emphasis on the common good. In the U.S., Social Security and the huge war effort moved the country in that direction.

Later, Medicare and Food Stamps would be adopted. Britain’s National Health Service and Canadian national health care were both signs of this change of emphasis.

After World War II, North American and European economies grew. As personal wealth grew, citizens more willingly accepted increased government action to care for less fortunate people.

Even on the diplomatic level, the focus on common interests expanded. The United Nations, NATO and the European Union reflected a willingness to contribute some national political independent action for what was seen as a higher common purpose.

The change was broad and widely accepted, leading to an unspoken belief that the tide had turned. Society’s values may have changed for good after the Depression. The political question became not whether to undertake action for the common good, but how far to go.

The world seemed to be moving in the direction Canada had chosen rather than toward American individualism. But resistance would grow.

The U.S. began to reverse the tide under the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Mental health care was cut and homelessness grew. Americans were increasingly unwilling to sacrifice their individual progress for collective effort.

The tidal change in attitudes about an enlarged government role, mistakenly called socialism by its critics, finally fully hit under the presidency of Donald Trump. His greatest political skill was in exploiting the growing discontent. But   similar leaders were emerging in places as different as the U.K., Hungary and Poland.

The new wave has been called “populism.” Many people have become restive with government setting standards, redistributing income and placing limits on their conduct.

The essence of individual rights is that each person should live as free of governmental restraint as possible. This freedom should be limited only by the condition that a person’s exercise of their rights should not limit another’s rights, not by a notion of the common good.

Here is the problem with fighting COVID-19. An article in the latest issue of   Scientific American magazine concludes that the virus has hit harder in the U.S. than in other countries because of our putting individualism above the community interest.

Most people don’t like being forced to wear a mask or have a shot. Protecting themselves at the price of some loss of personal choice should be left to them. What about the possible effect of their choice on other people, even if it involved their contracting the illness?

Political opposition to COVID-19 protective measures was misplaced when the risks of the virus were high. Concern about the physical threat may have justifiably pushed aside concern about the sense of isolation and the disruption of public education that resulted. But that is changing as people seek to regain greater control over their lives.

Progress in dealing with the virus has led to more attention being paid to its social and personal effects. Government has begun recognizing these costs, while public health officials pursue their necessarily more narrow approach. Mandates are being relaxed and more responsibility is being left to individuals.

Unfortunately, reasonable consideration of COVID-19 is difficult when it has become highly politicized. The difficult search for a balanced handling of the physical and mental health threats has been packaged as simply a matter of rights and has been taken over by partisan politics.

The struggle for balance has turned into a near war over individual rights versus the common good. In the U.S., political opposition to even limited protective measures replaces leadership with pandering. This problem is not limited to the U.S.

The latest sign of the turn of the tide – the trucker’s uprising in Canada – is caused by a belief that individual rights should not only be protected, but that they are absolute. Any hope of balance disappears when   truckers harass you for simply wearing a mask.

The assertion of absolute rights that allow no protection for the rights of others undermines the ability of government to function on any issue. In the U.S., it contributes to a political divide that seems to be beyond closing.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.