Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Common Good Always Trumps Individual Rights

The current crop of Republicans, a radical, rabidly conservative group, take as their jumping off point a very unnuanced view of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  To them, rights, if not specifically qualified in those documents, are absolute.  So whether it’s the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration, or whether it’s the right of free speech or the right to bear arms in the Constitution, no limitation on those rights is warranted (unless of course it limits the rights of opponents and so suits their purposes.)

And one must say, the words certainly sound absolute.  But let us consider their context.  First, the Declaration of Independence - the mother, if you will, of all our founding documents.  What does the Declaration say about rights?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The context of this recitation of rights is that all men are created equal and that all have the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, unless you believe that the Founding Fathers meant to set up a state of anarchy … with everyone exercising their liberty, doing whatever they wanted, without restraint … one can’t believe that they meant that no bounds could be placed on the exercise of these rights.  

Why?  Because when you have a community of people it is inevitable that at some point the free exercise of one person’s liberty and pursuit of happiness bumps up against another’s … either harming another or impinging that person’s exercise of his liberty.  Since the Declaration states that all men are created equal and all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the system can only work if one says that each person has this liberty so long as it does not harm others or impinge on the rights of others.

This last proposition is in fact the basis for all government laws and regulation of any type.  Whether it’s criminal laws, traffic laws. zoning ordinances, building codes, the Clean Air Act, banking regulations, etc. … all of these derive their legal basis from the basic proposition that neither an individual nor a corporation can act as it will, if such action harms another or the public welfare.

Then there are the sacrosanct rights enumerated in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.  But even the most jealously protected right of them all … the right of free speech … is not absolute.   Not only can one not yell “fire” in a crowded theater, but the laws of libel and slander prohibit both written and spoken words that are defamatory, malicious, and false.  There are false advertising laws, which prevent corporations from misleading the public.  The list goes on and on.

As for the right to bear arms, even assuming for the moment that the Constitution indeed grants that right to an individual (until recently the courts had not so held), it would be ludicrous to argue that the government can place no limitations on a right which has not just the potential, but as we see almost daily causes others grievous injury and death. Yet to the NRA and its supporters, and the majority in Congress which is either beholden to the NRA or scared of its power, virtually any regulation whatsoever, no matter how reasonable and called for, is anathema.

As recently as a generation ago, conservative Republicans understood that while they had their ideologically preferred way of addressing issues, they shared common ground for the most part with Democrats in understanding what the great public issues were.  They understood that we lived in a country where citizens had both rights and responsibilities. Where we all played our part, each according to his abilities, in supporting the government in its role of securing the rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As it says again in the Declaration of Independence:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

That is the purpose of government.  The mantra started by Ronald Reagan and taken up by the Tea Party Republicans that, “government is not the solution; government is the problem,” is at odds with not just our founding documents but our history.  

Indeed, it is at odds with the history of the Republican Party.  It was often Republicans that pushed for government action.  Whether it was the Republican President Lincoln pushing to end slavery or the Republican President Theodore Roosevelt breaking up the huge trusts of the day, such as Standard Oil, Republicans have a long and proud history of arguing for government action to protect those less powerful., to insure that all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When it comes to the rights we have, no one should shrink from vigorously protecting his or her own rights.  However, everyone must understand that with the exercise of rights comes a responsibility not to harm others or impinge on the exercise of their rights. When it does so, then the common good demands that such exercise of an individual right be regulated so as not to harm others.  The common good always trumps the exercise of an individual right.*

*A note of clarification.  In light of recent events around the world, and the comments of several readers, I need to clarify that if the exercise of one's right, such as free speech, offends another or the majority, those others are not harmed nor are their rights in any way impinged.  And so there is no justification for restraint in that situation.  When I speak of the common good, something far more concrete is meant ... like breathing clean air, drinking clean water, not having to fear violence, not being cheated.

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