Saturday, May 28, 2005

Individual Rights Are Not Absolute

Being that this is a blog against extremism, I'd like to use it to discuss how ANYTHING taken to the extreme can be dangerous, even something as noble as civil liberties. I see too often, especially from the left and libertarians an absolutist positions towards rights with little or no regard to the necessity of responsibility that comes with them. Everything has its limits.

Where the line is drawn is one that needs to be drawn very carefully, however there is a line that has to be there. For example, should every form of expression be entitled protection under the First Amendment? Think about it? Isn't freedom of speech limited by the purposes it was designed to serve? A threat such as the FEC stopping free speech of politics in personal blogs crosses the line on one side. It is something that we all should stand up against despite our different political ideals. However, there also comes a time when the line can be crossed from the other side.

To the absolutist, there is no distinction between Nazis and those who engage in other forms of unpopular speech. But there is a point at which it is giving a paramilitary terrorist organization free reign to exploit our laws of democracy so that they actually threaten liberty itself. Using a slippery slope argument that to bar groups such as Nazis from marching might also lead to the barring of someone like Martin Luther King is a flawed argument. King sought to expand rights while groups like Nazis seek to destroy them. My point is that there is a fine line that needs to be carefully walked upon.

At some point absolute rights conflict with the common good. When it gets to the point that you are defending burning the flag, and the rights of terrorists, you may be opening a dangerous door that could lead to empowering groups that would take the very freedom you have granted them away from you.

Too many people take their freedoms for granted, and never realize the price that is paid for them. Freedom indeed is not free. Too often those who ascribe to an absolutist interpretation of rights typically show little interest in seeing individual responsibilities tied to them. Pregnant women should have the responsibility and duty not to deliberately abuse their bodies in a way that is likely to cause harm to their unborn children; but absolutists declare that her individual rights trump her individual responsibilities. Or take for instance my favorite organization to pick on the ACLU, who are extremists with no regard to responsibility in cases where they object to metal detectors in violence-laden schools, protesting locker searches for drugs and guns, while at the same time defending obscene T-shirts in the classroom...what are they contributing to a safer learning environment? Again rights have trumped responsibility.

Individual liberty and the common good often come in conflict. Not even the cause of civil liberties, as noble as it is, can be permitted to override the common good if freedom is to be maintained. There are instances when the common good should be checked for sure, and the Bill of Rights addresses those instances. But that only shows the delicate balance that exists between the common good and individual liberty.

I don't want to be misunderstood here. It needs to be said that the most common threats to liberty have historically come from those who would sacrifice individual rights in exchange for a measure of security and order. This is why a vigorous defense of civil liberties is a desired quality in a free society.That being said, it is also important to understand that the maximization of individual rights does not equate with the maximization of liberty.

To live in a world of utter freedom would be to live in a world where every debased appetite could find expression, all in the name of liberty. The majority of Americans feel that our country is in a deficit of morals, which has been the downfall of many civilizations. Moral boundaries are necessary for a civil society to exist. There is a thin line, and it needs to be carefully approached by both sides.

John - Stop the ACLU

--responses are listed in alphabetical order from the host.--

Please allow me to apologize for the tardiness of my post. I was having major computer issue which prevented me from writing this on time.

First, I feel that I must correct a gross mischaracterization of libertarians made by Jay. He states: "I see too often, especially from the left and libertarians an absolutist positions towards rights with little or no regard to the necessity of responsibility that comes with them." I have been a libertarian for about five years and have NEVER once come across a libertarian that held such a position.

In fact, such a position is anathema to libertarian beliefs. Personal responsibility is as much a cornerstone of libertarian belief as our calls for freedom. It is no stretch to say that the latter is not possible without the former and every libertarian I have come in contact with understands this fact.

Now the question arises, how to tackle all of the other problems with Jay's post. Since his entire premise for the limiting of individual rights is based upon the "common good," I will start there. A few days ago in a chat session, I asked Jay who or what defines the "common good?" His answer was the Constitution and the People. At the time, I didn't have a chance to address the problems with his answer, so I will do so now.

First, let's deal with the Constitution. The Constitution DOES NOT define the "common good." This phrase is completely absent from the text of the Constitution. In fact the word "common" only appears 4 times. Twice in discussing the "common defence" and twice discussing "common law." The word "good" is even more scarce, appearing only once in Article III. Of course, Jay's mistake is not his alone. It is all too common an occurrence for people to attribute as justifications for their actions, some imaginary tenant of the Constitution.

Next, he said "the People" define the "common good." Since I didn't get to delve into this either, I can only assume that by "the People," he means the majority. (If this in not what he meant, I am sure he will correct me.) This creates some problems of its own. By leaving the definition of the "common good" to the whims of the majority, it becomes ethereal. It has no substance and opens itself up for abuse. If a person can never know for sure what the "common good" is, then authorities are free to charge him with violations of it as they see fit.

The left has long used the "common good" as a club to beat the public into submission. They use it as justification for the majority of their policies. As of late however, many on the right have, disturbingly so, taken up the mantra of the "common good." The "common good" is to me, a very dangerous step on the road to totalitarianism where the entire concept of individual rights is buried in favor of policies that promote the "common good." Jay says: "Not even the cause of civil liberties, as noble as it is, can be permitted to override the common good if freedom is to be maintained." I say it not civil liberties that threaten freedom, but the ethereal concept of the "common good."

To live in a world of utter freedom would be to live in a world where every debased appetite could find expression, all in the name of liberty.

Here I would have to ask Jay to go into more specifics. Please give some examples. How are you defining "expression?" Thought is not action, speech is not action. Are you suggesting that anyone who, in your estimation, has a debased appetite not be allowed to even think or discuss those appetites? You specifically mention barring Nazis from marching and justify it by saying that they seek to bar rights themselves. While it is true that they want to implement their ridiculous Fascist policies, talking about it does not implement it. Marching does not implement it. Running commercials on TV, on the radio, or in print does not implement their ideas. You cannot remain a free society by preventing others from expressing their beliefs in these manners.

Since I am late to the party, I have the advantage of addressing some things others have posted as well.

First Carl: "This is why I am FOR, mandatory military service."

While I myself think people who serve in the military have a better understanding of the sacrifices necessary to maintain freedom, I would NEVER make such a requirement mandatory. You do not teach people the value of freedom by making them indentured servants. People are NOT the property of the government.

Second Joseph: "I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of the nation as well as most of the Founding Fathers when I say that the Constitution was never meant to protect freedom of depriving rights to other citizens while realizing one's own."

While this is true, the examples you cited prior to this statement are not examples of a deprivation of rights. There is no right to not be offended. If you find your work environment to be offensive, find another work environment. Publicize the fact that your employer or teacher is racist. Do not try to create a "right" that by its very nature is a violation of true rights.

Liberty Dog - One Billion Red Chinese and a Dog Named Liberty

First Off, let me say to everyone, Happy Memorial Day, I hope you all had a great weekend, and remember it was all made possible by those who sacrificed their lives so that you could live your's freely. Now on to my comments.

Our country was founded on, and continues to function on, one principal (when you boil it all down), and that is FREEDOM. It is far better to have Too Much freedom, than it is to have too little. Freedom should not be infringed save for when your actions, infringe upon another's freedoms. (In other words, in your quest for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, you may not extinguish someone else's Life or Liberty).

Limiting liberty beyond that is a dangerous slippery slope that should be avoided at all costs. Extremists may try to use this to their advantage, but they always get caught up in the loophole. YOU MAY NOT INJURE ANYONE ELSE IN YOUR PRACTICE OF FREEDOM. That is non-negotiable.

So to answer your question, are absolutists dangerous? Possibly, but not unless they infringe on someone else's rights. Once they do, they automatically start to infringe on their own rights. This brings me to the subject of civil responsibility.

It is EVERY CITIZEN'S duty to both protect freedom, and not infringe upon it. Our constitution applies only to the CITIZENS of the United States, and thus only affords protection to them, and no one else. The title of Citizen is to be held in the highest esteem of the land, and with it comes civic responsibility. It is not the government's role to limit freedom, nor should it ever be. It is the citizen's responsibility to ensure their elected officials are protecting their freedoms, and obeying the will of the people. We exercise these powers every time we vote.

Our problem, as of late, is not TOO MUCH freedom (we have just the right amount right now) but the citizenry's wielding of this freedom irresponsibly. These are great powers we all have to influence society, and it is our duty to use these powers wisely and for the good of society, so that the government never finds it necessary to infringe on our freedoms. That, in it self, would be an irreversible travesty.
Zaphriel - Birth of a Neocon

"Being that this is a blog against extremism, I'd like to use it to discuss how ANYTHING taken to the extreme can be dangerous, even something as noble as civil liberties."

Jay, my friend... civil liberties can NEVER be dangerous... until they infringe upon another's civil liberties.

"I see too often, especially from the left and libertarians an absolutist positions towards rights with little or no regard to the necessity of responsibility that comes with them."

The ONLY responsibility that comes with being free is attaining it, THEN helping others to attain it. "Freedom Lite" may be your thing but it is not MY thing, NOR was it our Founding Fathers' thing.

"Where the line is drawn is one that needs to be drawn very carefully, however there is a line that has to be there."

BZZZZZTTTT!!!!!!!!!! We do not need to break "liberty" into a zillion little pieces. Liberty is what it is. Look it up in the dictionary and go from there. Either you are liberated or you are NOT. Skillful, precision whittling of liberty is not necessary, NOR is it welcomed.

For example, should every form of expression be entitled protection under the First Amendment? Think about it? Isn't freedom of speech limited by the purposes it was designed to serve?

Jay, you are way above this. Don't stoop to the "yelling FIRE! in a crowded movie theater argument here. You have expertly edged the argument from "should we be free" to the "should we be free to own slaves" level without even trying.

"A threat such as the FEC stopping free speech of politics in personal blogs crosses the line on one side. It is something that we all should stand up against despite our different political ideals."

Amen!

"However, there also comes a time when the line can be crossed from the other side."

Jay, fear NOT the "other side". For every "yin", there is a "yang".

"To the absolutist, there is no distinction between Nazis and those who engage in other forms of unpopular speech."

Then do not be an "absolutist", Jay :-)

"But there is a point at which it is giving a paramilitary terrorist organization free reign to exploit our laws of democracy so that they actually threaten liberty itself."

Agreed. And THAT point is, failing to secure our borders. Let's just start the argument from the fundamentals. Our borders are porous and that seems NOT to be of huge concern to the government. I have a HUGE issue with that. I'm LISTENING to learn how maybe it's NOT actually our borders but our free speech that threatens us the most at this juncture.

"Using a slippery slope argument that to bar groups such as Nazis from marching might also lead to the barring of someone like Martin Luther King is a flawed argument."

Then don't use it. You are suggesting (in the reverse) that barring Jerry Falwell is the same as barring God. Don't go there.

"My point is that there is a fine line that needs to be carefully walked upon."

What???? When it comes to free speech, you mean? There is NOT a "fine line" between speaking out against your government and yelling "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. It is a "THICK, BLACK LINE". There IS a difference.

"At some point absolute rights conflict with the common good."

The problem is, that "point" is always up to the interpretation of the "common good", even if the "common good" is on trial for money laundering at the time. Having a vote is NOT the same thing as a "mandate".

"When it gets to the point that you are defending burning the flag, and the rights of terrorists, you may be opening a dangerous door that could lead to empowering groups that would take the very freedom you have granted them away from you."

On the surface, I agree. You burn my flag, I reserve the right to torch your Depends. On the other hand, you DO have that right. And *I* reserve the right to kick your A## for it. Then YOU can sue me for being such a butthead in court. But the POINT is this - I may not like what you say, or how you say it. Blog ON and I'll take the heat for it, if I must.

"Too many people take their freedoms for granted, and never realize the price that is paid for them."

AGREED! This is why I am FOR, mandatory military service.

"Too often those who ascribe to an absolutist interpretation of rights typically show little interest in seeing individual responsibilities tied to them."

Nowhere in the Constitution does it admonish people to demonstrate personal responsibilities. It DOES, however; pound and POUND upon the individual's right to speak FREELY. I dunno about you, Jay, but I'm more than willing to chamber one in my M-16 for this Right.

"Pregnant women should have the responsibility and duty not to deliberately abuse their bodies in a way that is likely to cause harm to their unborn children; but absolutists declare that her individual rights trump her individual responsibilities."

Wrong! "Absolutists", in THIS case, are not TRUE "absolutists", or they would ABSOLUTELY speak UP for the fetus and ITS "absolute" rights.

"Individual liberty and the common good often come in conflict."

The ONLY time there should be a conflict is when one American's enjoyment of "liberty" is gained by the encroachment upon another American's "liberty".

"Not even the cause of civil liberties, as noble as it is, can be permitted to override the common good if freedom is to be maintained."

My friend, you sound like a fellow liberal here. I applaud you for taking the plunge and ditching your far right wing tendencies to embrace the "common good". However; be advised, that term ("common good") is the term that lies at the root of EVERY war, bar none.

"There are instances when the common good should be checked for sure, and the Bill of Rights addresses those instances. But that only shows the delicate balance that exists between the common good and individual liberty."

I will not argue there is a delicate balance, or a fine line between the "common good" and "individual liberty". While I attacked your arguments one by one, and have disagreed with many of your points of view here, I know you know this is coming from a fellow American who stands beside you in arms to protect and defend each other's right to think, and speak FREELY.

"It needs to be said that the most common threats to liberty have historically come from those who would sacrifice individual rights in exchange for a measure of security and order."

Yessir! And I would be one of those screaming it the LOUDEST amongst us.

"This is why a vigorous defense of civil liberties is a desired quality in a free society."

AMEN, sir! No "buts" needed to this one! (ahh... but you DID add a "but")...

"That being said, it is also important to understand that the maximization of individual rights does not equate with the maximization of liberty."

While I respect your point of view, I must say... civil liberties are NOT up for discussion. As long as your actions do not infringe upon the freedom of another, they are NOT up for discussion. In fact, they should be viewed as a completely private matter and not even thought of. This is a FREE COUNTRY. You are FREE to disagree but NOT free to override the Constitution because your "values" conflict with another's. I freely admit, MY values are no purer than yours. If I were the king of the world, we'd all be saying the Lord's Prayer right now but I realize that isn't a very cool thing to impose upon our Muslim brothers and sisters (for instance).

"To live in a world of utter freedom would be to live in a world where every debased appetite could find expression, all in the name of liberty."

I love it. SIGN ME UP! We'll find our own and migrate to them, then mutually, grab arms to defeat our enemies when the time comes. Why does this frighten you? I'm fine with it.

"The majority of Americans feel that our country is in a deficit of morals, which has been the downfall of many civilizations."

Actually, I see it the other way around (no surprise). I think the downfall of many civilizations has been the Peoples' inability to accept the fact that "morals" are personal and relative, and ALWAYS (in the end) infringed upon by the majority. There IS A REASON our Forefathers DESPISED democracies (i.e., "mob rules") and CLEARLY ESTABLISHED a Republic instead.

"Moral boundaries are necessary for a civil society to exist."

REALLY. And to whom do we entrust the definition of "moral"? Slippery slope, my friend... VERY slippery slope indeed.

"There is a thin line, and it needs to be carefully approached by both sides."

We agree on this. And yes, we ARE treading on one of the THINNEST lines we could be treading upon within this conversation. Please understand I am RESPECTFULLY dissenting with some of your opinions and in the end, I stand beside you, m-16 in hand. Brothers FIRST, my friend.

Carl - The Gun-Toting Liberal

Freedom goes too far when realizing it comes at the cost of depriving others.

Freedom of speech is an excellent case-study of how any freedom can be taken to such extremes as to take away from the freedom of others. In the Constitution, freedom to say whatever one wants to IS guaranteed. However, where should the limit be drawn? When someone uses racist slurs towards employees or students, is this not creating a hostile work environment and thus depriving others of their rights? By referring to someone not as a person but as a hate-speak slur, is someone not depriving another of their rights? The Constitution has been used by conservatives to defend a certain judicial nomination in recent years by defending that ALL speech is defended. However, this is one of those limits this post is about. I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of the nation as well as most of the Founding Fathers when I say that the Constitution was never meant to protect freedom of depriving rights to other citizens while realizing one's own.

No right is absolute. To take anything, no matter how good, to the extreme is to become extreme. Having a government under the domination of one ideology is extreme and so is declaring that there is one universal interpretation of a right or privilege. No right or privilege that deprives another of their rights and privileges should be legal and once again, the Constitution is being twisted to this aim by extremists on all sides. The ACLU wants absolute freedom for convicted felons but how is that Constitutional? The reason felons are what they are is because they broke the laws OF the Constitution or the laws setup within its confines. Is this not equally as destructive and extreme as an activist judge who decides a Constitutional technicality is more important than defending a person's dignity and right to live in peace?

There are limits to freedom and liberty. Balancing what is proper and what is too much is to walk a tight rope over thin ice but that is precisely what Democracy is, a frail idea that can be destroyed by too little effort as well as by too much. Extremism must not be tolerated.


Joseph - The New Oklahoma Democrat

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