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The Constitution and freedom

February 1, 2013

Recently, I had the opportunity to respond to a video link that was posted to a blog by the blog owner. In the link a professor expresses his belief that the US Constitution is an outdated document. I expressed my disagreement with the professor’s point of view and my support of his right to express it. The blog owner clearly found my response to be somehow unacceptable and expressed his apparent disdain. While I gave only a cursory response on his blog (you may read the entire discussion here), I felt compelled to deal with his comments more thoroughly in this, my forum.
Of course I have no idea how many times you’ve heard other people repeat what you disparagingly refer to as “generous magnanimity” nor do I particularly care. I don’t speak for them. I only speak for myself.
You ask a question that, I suspect, gets to the heart of the nature of our disagreement. So, the first part of my answer to your second question begins by suggesting you read my original response again while trying to control your apparent annoyance. Really read it, paying particular attention from the third sentence to the end of my comments (the third sentence is the one that begins with the words “In fact”). Once you’ve done that, then please consider what I say below, the second part of my answer.
There is this idea that our civil liberties, our rights, are all somehow independent of each other. I run into this idea, periodically, from people all along the political spectrum. If I have this belief, then it’s very easy to convince myself that I can surrender (or compel others to surrender) some or all of a liberty that is of little or no significance to me, while remaining forever secure in the liberties of which I particularly approve. This type of reasoning is the height of foolishness.
I do not believe there is some vast conspiracy to deprive the American people of their rights. I do, however, recognize this historical truth: Over time, all governments, including ours seek to exert ever increasing control over their citizens. It does not matter whether the reasons are well-intentioned or nefarious. The end result is the same. If this is permitted, if the people begin to accept the idea that their rights derive from the kindness of government rather than government deriving its limited powers from the consent of a sovereign people and thus may be legitimately taken away, freedom is lost.
When we look at the idea that we can surrender some freedoms and retain the right to exercise others unimpeded, it can, perhaps, have a certain appeal. Perhaps it marks us as mighty intellectuals who strive fearlessly to free the minds of the less enlightened. Maybe it means we are agents of social change trying to free our society from the shackles of the past and make life better for all people, especially those who are oppressed by outdated thoughts and ideas…or the results of those ideas. Maybe…but not likely. What it really does is make clear how little we value freedom, how little we appreciate its fragility and how enormous is the arrogance that suggests we can ignore the lessons of history with impunity. History is intolerant of such hubris. History tells us the idea that we can surrender some freedoms and fully retain others, while fun to debate in sophomore philosophy and political science classes, is devastating in real life.
Sometimes we get this idea that not only can we surrender some freedoms while retaining others, but that we can actually become more free this way if we surrender those freedoms for the right reasons. Thus, we have abrogations of freedom of speech, press and religion, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to peaceably assemble…all in the interest of the greater good to society. To sacrifice freedom on the altar of academic thought, social stability, security, economic achievement, compassion or any other cause du jour ignores the truths that the only true freedoms are those exercised by individuals and that it is freedom that produces the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. It is not the other way around. It is freedom that allows us to exhibit greater compassion, freedom that permits the greater expression of real tolerance, freedom that will not only allow but truly promote diversity, freedom that lets us obtain greater security.
You may mock, you may insult and you may disparage those with whom you disagree. You are free to engage in any sort of logical fallacy or sophomoric logic you choose, as you did when you suggested applying my words to a convicted felon or a 10 year old child. That sort of disingenuous argumentation is your right. And while you may be willing to sacrifice my rights for what you see as a legitimate end, I will sacrifice none of yours. Not because I’m so smart, wise or noble, but because I recognize that when one of us becomes less free, we are all less free, regardless of your attempt to suggest otherwise. While I would hope that in the future you would avoid name calling, character assassination, gross generalizations and the like, I recognize my hopes in this regard are likely to remain forever unrealized.
To be more plain as to the nature of our disagreement, we disagree as to the fundamental nature of liberties, both as to whom they belong and by whom they are exercised. Civil liberties are not assigned, granted or possessed by groups but by individual citizens. Even a cursory reading of the Constitution, much less a more in depth study, suggests that rights were envisioned as being enjoyed by individuals. This is the view most consistent with the vast majority of constitutional scholarship with which I am familiar. Likewise, barring a very few long-recognized exceptions such as convicted felons, those rights are best understood to be the inherent possession of every citizen. And many states have a process whereby felons who have paid their debt can regain their civil rights . Thus, rights are not assigned or granted by the power of the state to the citizen. Rather, citizens (“the people”) voluntarily give up a small portion of their power to enable the government to govern (though only with their consent). This is in no way an abdication of sovereignty on the part of the people. It is, instead, a powerful statement as to the subservient nature of the relationship of government to its masters.
So, who am I to support the professor’s right to speak his mind? I am a citizen who recognizes what you, sir, apparently do not. That support of our civil liberties, all of them, is vital to a people who wish to remain free.

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  1. Exactly so. The essence of the control freak side is to say that if only we surrender our rights, we'll be cared for and loved. But a nanny state is no less dangerous than a dictatorship–possibly more so, since Mary Poppins offers a spoonful of sugar with her medicine. I prefer an adult nation in which we cooperate on some things, but generally leave each other the freedom to decide for ourselves.

  2. I find that many people don't trust individuals enough to truly endorse freedom. Oddly enough, they do trust groups of people, governmental or otherwise, to exert varying degrees of control over them.

  3. While I would hope that in the future you would avoid name calling, character assassination, gross generalizations and the like, I recognize my hopes in this regard are likely to remain forever unrealized.Good luck with that. Liberal's favorite trick when they realize they have lost the argument is to immediately start with the name calling and character assassination.

  4. Sadly, I have seen this used by people all along almost any spectrum I can name. As a rule I have to be content with appreciating the irony of a debater who routinely disparages others only to cry "foul" at what he or she perceives as an insult.

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