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Freedom and Responsibility

One trend that I find disturbing in America in recent decades is the tendency to want to create new laws restricting freedoms. There is always a "good" reason for these laws: Someone, or several someones, abused their rights and privileges, and therefore we need to legislate away those rights and freedoms for everyone.

Some of this legislation is what many people call "feel good" legislation: When most people hear about it, without really thinking it through, it makes them feel good, as though they are participating in doing something positive in the world.

Unfortunately, few of these laws stand closer inspection. Many just don't make sense, and are the equivalent of taking away everyone's right to drive because a few people don't drive well. In fact, many remove rights that are not rights that the government has any control over in the first place. What do I mean by that? I mean that America is founded on the idea that there are certain rights that are inalienable, that are each person's by the very fact that they are human beings. That means that no one and nothing is able to take those rights away.

Innumerable as the Stars

The Bill of Rights lists just a few of these rights, which our founding fathers said were as "innumerable as the stars." Among them are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the right to free speech, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, and so on.

One very important concept to be aware of is that the Bill of Rights does not GRANT these rights. Instead, it AFFIRMS them. What's the difference, you may ask?

The difference is this: Just as your birth certificate does not grant you your existence or the right to live, but instead merely affirms the fact that you are alive, just so the Bill of Rights does not grant us those rights, but acknowledges that they are there.

In fact, our founding fathers debated over whether they would even need to spell out the rights and freedoms that are ours by right of being human, but eventually decided that it might be prudent to spell out a few of those "innumerable" rights.

What this all means, when boiled down to the essential core, is that no person OR GOVERNMENT has the right to take those rights away.

So the problem with many pieces of legislation is that they propose to take away rights that our Constitution AFFIRMS are ours forever, and that therefore cannot be taken away. That means that those pieces of legislation are unconstitutional. That means, in short, that they are illegal by the very laws of this land.

Who's Paying Attention?

So how do those laws gets passed? They get passed for these reasons:

  • The legislators themselves are unaware of the laws of the land. Don't laugh. Many of your legislators are ignorant of the basic rights and civil liberties that this land is based upon.
  • People don't pay attention to the bills being proposed, and therefore many unconstitutional bills get passed into "law" because no one speaks up against them, or not enough people speak up against them.
  • People do pay attention to the bills being proposed, but don't think them through or fall into the trap of "feel good thinking" that says that it is okay to take away this right or that one because the overall good is that some bad people are then prevented from doing more bad things.

The problem with (c) is that sure, some people abuse their rights and privileges. But as soon as we make something illegal because some people abuse their rights, we are on the way to a police state in which no one has rights and no one is free.

Another problem with taking away rights is that the people who abuse those rights are not likely to stop just because it has been declared illegal. If they didn't stop before out of some internal guide that said what they were doing was wrong, then they certainly aren't about to suddenly develop a conscience just because whatever it is they were doing is now illegal.

A third problem with taking away rights is that people are not likely to learn to be responsible for themselves if they do not have responsibilities. Thomas Jefferson once said something along the lines of, if people abuse their liberties, the answer is not to take those liberties away, but to educate people in the proper use of their liberties.

Childproofing the World

A fourth problem with taking away rights is that much of this kind of legislation is designed, supposedly, to make people safer by restricting dangerous items or making them outright illegal because some people hurt other people with them.

The problem with this is that it makes the government a parent and it makes it seem as though grown-up citizens are overgrown children with no sense. The world is not childproof. There are dangerous things in it. If, every time someone gets hurt, we make the object that was involved difficult to obtain or outright illegal, then we are essentially trying to childproof the world.

You may laugh. You may say this isn't so. But take a look at some of the legislation people are trying to get passed. For example, Our right to keep and bear arms is being attacked through so-called "gun control" legislation.

Yes, guns are potentially lethal. But so are kitchen knives, baseball bats, skateboards, bicycles, airplanes, automobiles, motorcycles, roller skates, garbage disposals, and even bare fists. All of these things have been used to injure or kill adults, children, and infants, either intentionally or unintentionally. However you feel personally about dangerous things, is it really the right thing to do to try to restrict everyone's rights? Especially knowing that the people who are prone to violence are going to be violent no matter what the laws are?

As one doctor wrote, "I am a trauma surgeon, and after 20 years in practice, I know first hand the terrible things that humans do to each other. Most importantly, I have observed that there is no such thing as "Gun Violence." There are only violent people, who are resourceful, and will grab anything capable of being used as a weapon, whether it is a gun, knife, rock, bottle, or automobile, just to name a few of what I have seen used. We need to direct our resources to control the violent people, not the futile attempt to eliminate anything and everything that has the potential to be used as a weapon." (Terry Sanderfer, quoted in the November 2000 issue of The Firing Line, the newsletter of the California Rifle and Pistol Association.)

The bottom line is that we cannot legislate morality. We cannot legislate ethics. And we cannot childproof the world.

What Can You Do?

So what is the answer? If we can't take the easy but short-sighted and ultimately useless approach of making one thing after another illegal, what can we do to improve our society? What can we do about people who do bad things to others or to the environment?

The first step is to be aware of how powerful even one voice is. If no one says anything, then even those who think something is wrong might think that they are the only ones who object. But if even one person speaks out publicly against something, then others are given the courage to also speak out.

On the personal level, sometimes people think they can get away with something because they think "everybody" does it. If someone who knows them speaks up (lovingly and diplomatically) and says that what they are doing is morally or ethically wrong, then that perhaps will give them something to think about and may even help them to make the right decision and stop doing the wrong thing.

Some of the things people do are petty--minor thefts from restaurants or their employers, for example. Some are more serious, and indicate a need for help. The person who shakes his infant may not be aware that he can paralyze that infant, cause brain damage, or even kill it. Of course, he should not be shaking that infant at all. If he cannot restrain himself from doing so, he needs help in understanding his anger and in learning to manage that anger. He may think he can do as he likes because it is "his" child, as though the child is property. But if his family and friends do not speak up, he will never know. And another child may die or be injured.

On the political level, our legislators often have the same problem: They think they can do as they like if they never hear from their constituents. But if they get enough email, faxes, phone calls, letters, and even visits from their constituents to show that people are paying attention, then they will be more educated in what is expected of them and they will know they are being held accountable by their constituents.

Cumulatively, as more and more people speak up, the power and effectiveness of those voices increase exponentially.

Voter Statistics

Think about this fact: Only 70% of the people who are eligible to register to vote even bother to register. And of those 70%, only half bother to vote. That means that, whoever gets elected, he or she is not elected by a majority vote. These numbers are slightly higher for presidential elections (74% and 49%, respectively, for the 1996 presidential elections). (Source of statistics.)

Let's take the infamous presidential election in 2000. However you feel about who should or shouldn't have been elected or who did or didn't have the "majority" of votes, bear in mind that even if EVERY SINGLE PERSON who actually voted had all voted for the same candidate, that still would only have represented 36% of the people who are eligible to vote. That is NOT a majority of the people by any definition. But not everyone voted for the same candidate. Instead, the votes of that 36% were pretty much evenly divided, with Bush and Gore each getting about 48% of the votes that were cast.

That means that whoever got elected, whether Bush or Gore, that person would have had the votes of only about 17% of the total number of people who were eligible to vote.

Take a moment to think about that. Then ask yourself what you can do. Are you registered to vote? If not, then get registered. Do you vote in every election? If not, then vote! There is no reasonable excuse for not taking advantage of your right to vote.

The reason I have heard the most often from people for not registering is that they are afraid of doing their civic duty by serving on a jury. Setting aside any lecture about doing one's civic duty, which I know would be as well-received as ants at a picnic, I'd like to point out some facts.

I've been registered to vote since I was 18. I've been called for jury duty three times. I've served once. And I didn't even try to get out of jury duty. In fact, I was eager to do it. I thought an intelligent, educated jury member would be a refreshing change for our judicial system.

But in one case, I was a young student putting myself through college, and the judge thought I shouldn't miss my classes and work. In another, the judge dismissed me because I was a working single mother. In the third case, I was an alternate, which meant I had to attend everything, but didn't get to be in on the jury's deliberations.

On the average, then, I have gotten called up for jury duty about once a decade, and have only served once. Would that be so bad? If you aren't registered to vote because you are afraid of jury duty, is it really worth it to you to not exercise one of your fundamental rights just to avoid a few days of civic duty every thirty years? For that matter, you may never be called at all. I know many people who are registered to vote but who have never been called up for jury duty.

The Importance of Education

We also need to understand how vitally important education and literacy are to creating a healthy, wholesome, responsible society. By literacy is not just meant the ability to read, but also a larege enough vocabulary and enough knowledge of the language to be able to understand what is read.

It is a grim but true fact that illiteracy is DIRECTLY tied to criminality. This is a global fact, not unique to America. Everywhere that you have people who are illiterate, you have a higher rate of crime. In America, some states base their prison population estimates on how well their third graders do on literacy tests. If there are a high number of third-graders not scoring so well on literacy tests, the prison population is estimated to be that much higher in ten years.

Appalling those these facts are, the positive side of it is that it is so easy to cure. Again, it starts at home. If you have children, or nieces or nephews, take them to the library. It's free! Buy them books. Read to them. Encourage others to read to them as well. Learn how to read to a child so that you are best encouraging their literacy. Speak up on everything from the local to the national level about the importance of a good education for all.

Don't rely on government (so-called public) schools to educate anyone well. Those have already proven to be a failure as they are set up today. (I think that they could be otherwise, but that would require a major restructuring and getting rid of most of the teachers and the teaching methods and philosophies we use today.) Instead, support local, independent schools or homeschool your children. Support literacy programs. If you can, donate your time to helping to teach others to read.

And don't neglect your own education. Try to read and learn something new every day. Pay attention to what is going on in the world. Question everything you take fro granted. Ask yourself what ideas are being sold to you through television, movies, newspapers, the radio, magazines, and other media. And I am not just talking about advertisements. Almost everything you read has a bias, if not an outright agenda. Learn to spot it.

And have the courage to speak up.


Whil researching the voting statistics, I came across this cool motto. It would do us all well to remember it daily.

"Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." Johnson County, Iowa.

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