Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Guaranteeing Rights and Losing Liberty

One of the purposes of law, at least in our society, is to make everything fair. We want to see people treated equally and fairly, but the reality is that law cannot do that. What happens is that as law tries to compensate by guaranteeing the rights of one group it begins to infringe on the rights of another group. Consider this example taken from Philip Howard’s book The Death of Common Sense:
Handing out rights like land grants has become the preferred method of staking out a place for those who feel disadvantaged. Lawmakers and courts, confronted with evidence of past abuses, scramble over each other to define and take credit for handing out new rights. When refused entry to a movie because his two-year-old son might disturb the other patrons, Rolando Acosta, then deputy commissioner of New York City’s Human Rights Commission, had an easy fix; the commission ruled that banning children was age discrimination.” (p.117)


In granting a right to Mr. Acosta and his son, the rights of paying movie goers was infringed on. Sure this might not be a huge deal, but when we start to apply this principle to other areas of our lives we begin to see that it has some dramatic and costly effects.

Here is an example of what could happen with this emphasis on rights. Suppose the federal government goes ahead and grants homosexual couples the right to be married (as if our rights come from the government, but that is another issue for another day), and a homosexual couple comes to me and asks me to marry them. I refuse, based on my right of religious freedom (since my religion identifies homosexuality as a sin and marriage to be between a man and a woman). This couple then sues me and the church because we have infringed on their right to be married. How does the court decide that case? Whatever the court rules someone’s rights will be said to have been infringed on.

We live in a culture where individual rights are the most important thing. The problem is that the greatest good is not the individual right, but what is best for society at large. The rights of an individual shouldn’t trump the good of the community. While similar sentiments can be offered to justify communism, that is hardly what I am advocating. Because there are some basic individual rights, given to us by our Creator, that are essential for the good of the community. This is precisely why the Bill of Rights was a necessary addition to the Constitution, individual liberty is needed for the community to thrive. It is good for the community for the individual to be free, but that freedom shouldn’t take away from the rights of other people. That is why my right of free speech has limits to it: slander and libel. It is good that I am able to speak my mind, but that should never come at the cost of someone’s reputation.

C. S. Lewis in his essay Screwtape Proposes a Toast has the senior demon giving a speech to young demons. This is one of the points Screwtape makes:
“Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that Democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether ‘democratic behaviour’ means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.” (pp. 59, 60; The World’s Last Night)


Individual liberty is the basis of democracy, and so we want to make sure that everyone has their share of “rights”. The problem is that you cannot guarantee the rights of one group of people without infringing on the rights of another group of people. So while it seems to be the heart of democracy to make sure everyone is treated equally, the reality is that by guaranteeing special rights to certain groups and individuals we are bringing about the end of democracy and liberty.

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