Friday, January 21, 2011

Legal Rights and Civil Liberties (Politics)

Strong opinions follow.

Being American and living in my homeland, I hear a lot of folks talk about "rights."  Specifically rights in terms of freedom, liberty, etc.  Like most of Americans, my upbringing echoed with that word.  We fought wars to protect our rights.  No greater political sin exists than to threaten those rights.  Enemies of our rights are enemies of all.

Increasingly, what I've heard and read is that the greatest foe to our rights is the government.  The less government, the better has become a widely-held motto, etched with passionate acid into hearts and souls.

Within the last couple of years, though, I've come to question even using the word "rights" as sloppy, vague, and too often an excuse for some very disreputable ideas.  A freshman Senator from Utah insisting the government has no business outlawing slave labor.  Former presidential candidate Ron Paul going on and on about how the Civil Rights Act was wrong.  More, I've read and heard people make a really stupid claim, a popular but frankly absurd one:

Namely, that rights exist in nature and government exists to take them away.

Let me be frank.  This notion is excrement.  In real-world, practical terms, life without government ends up the most brutal kind of chaos.  Simply look around at places where civil government breaks down, where no police and military and courts and lawmakers and a bureaucracy to support them exist.  Freedom indeed does run rampant there--freedom to loot, rape, murder and enslave.  For those with sufficient strength, weapons and ruthlessness such times and places can be a kind of utopia.  Those without have the freedom to try and run away to hide.

The whole idea of legal rights and civil liberties (a far more specific terminology, and one I prefer for exactly that reason) arose from government.  Freedom of speech in practical terms means laws protect that freedom.  Trial by jury means a system of government exists, with rules and procedures.  Long, weary centuries of Faith-inspired  bloodshed gave rise to Freedom of Religion, which consists in many ways of government protecting the legal rights and civil liberties of religious minorities.

Contrary to the rantings of some, government serves an excellent and supremely wonderful purpose.  It is an institution (one of many) that allows this lovely thing we call civilization to live.  Perfect?  Certainly not!  Like all institutions--the Church, Labor Unions, Corporations, Formal Education--government requires oversight to work at all well.  It even functions as oversight to itself as well as other institutions--and vice versa.  But in and of itself government is not the enemy.  The hundreds of thousands of government employees are not in fact all sadists and sociopaths (I know people who actually preach this nonsense).  More, just because the government does something doesn't make that action totally evil.

We may (and do) disagree on precisely what the government should do.  After all, we disagree over which sports team should win and whether Sookie should choose Bill or Eric.  But when we view such a crucial part of our lives, such a necessary institution with contempt, we're making heaps of problems for ourselves.

It bears repeating, more explicitly.  Legal rights and civil liberties were created by government.  Without government, for all practical purposes they don't exist.  Take away government and they vanish.

Nor (to answer a very silly objection already encountered) does this mean government can or will do things according to a whim.  I'm genuinely curious about where this idea comes from.  My suspicion is that it arises from a lack of understanding.  We don't really know what all the rules and regulations are in a society as large and complex as our own.  None of us do.  Coming up against something that baffles us runs aground of a deep reluctance to admit our own ignorance.  For a certain mindset, admitting they don't understand is as unthinkable as trusting strangers know what they are doing.  At all.  What is left then?  To assume the rules don't actually make any sense and were created "just because."

How likely is that really?  Sure, now and then somebody somewhere is going to just make a best guess that'll be so wrong as to be laughable.  Or tragic.  History is full of that, and plenty of horror stories lived out as a result.  Yet most of the time, reasons actually exist for doing things a certain way.  Good, bad, indifferent--there are reasons.  Likewise legislatures who do things on a whim--honestly, I can't think of single example of that.

Mind you, I also strongly suspect some folks are projecting their own sins unto government.  The supremely self-centered cannot imagine others entering public service for any motive other than greed.  People filled with the urge to tell everyone else how to live their lives (while never ever having to listen to any advice from them) presume that is what motivates every single person in government.

Pretty immature, really.

1 comment:

Christine said...

Agreed. As Finnish I don´t nderstand why some Americans think government is so bad idea.