Friday, April 24, 2020

Here's a revolutionary idea: Is what you mean by 'rights!', compatible with Liberty?

When you have a problem, it's important to identify what it is, and to not misidentify it as being something other than what it is, right? Because... we know we can't fix the right problem, by working on the wrong problem, right? And the more serious the problem, the more that applies, right?

For example, if you were outraged over how the police misused and abused their power while making an arrest, would it help to expose their misbehavior by protesting "We have 'rights!' so it's wrong for the police to arrest people!"? Whatever your intentions might've been, or how sympathetic people probably would have been to what you might have told them you'd seen, by instead telling them that a well established, necessary and rightful norm of policing, is a violation of 'rights!', you'd be discrediting yourself, you'd be deflecting from whatever wrongs actually had been done, and the result would probably be that those who should have been brought to justice, would walk free under the cover of the "crazy talk" distractions your ill-considered words enabled them slip away under.

Such thoughts as that have been on my mind a lot lately, and are why when my friends have recently asked 'Why aren't you out defending our 'rights!' with us?!', I've essentially been answering "Why are you attacking our liberty and trying to yank our individual rights out by their roots?" Both those saying 'Govt can't make me stay home!', and those saying 'Govt must order everyone to stay home!', are threatening our liberty, less from the words they do say, than for the reasonable discussions which their reckless words ensure won't be had.

Don't mistake me, there are a dangerously large number of governors, county executives, mayors and various tyrannical ticket jockeys, who are misusing and abusing the powers they've received through the Communist Chinese Coronavirus emergency (some aspects of which I've gone into here, and here, so I won't belabor those points here), and those abuses range from shutting down the businesses of an entire state, to arresting parents taking their kids to play in the park. Those are abuses, dangerous ones, and they do need to be corrected.

But to expose and fight the actual abuses in such governmental misbehavior, you need to cite the instances and contexts wherein such measures & actions are wrongful. We need to  engage in a reasonable discussion of the real concerns on either side of the fence. For instance, my position might be,
"Given what we know about conditions, how is it justifiable to impose the same restrictive rules on a park in a congested city, as to one in the suburbs or rural areas? The circumstances of traveling to, accessing, and using them, involve vastly different conditions and proximities between people, so imposing the same rules to all parks cannot be sensible, and if they're not sensible, they cannot be effective, and to knowingly enforce such inappropriate rules across such differing contexts, is a reckless use & abuse of power - from the level of parks, on up."
, while a reasonable concern from the other side of the fence might be something like:
"Given what we know about conditions in how the virus persists on surfaces, travels up to 15' by cough or sneeze, and that people can think that they're perfectly healthy, when in fact they're infected and spreading the virus for 10 to 15 days before they feel a single symptom, we need to restrict everyone's activities even in parks, and not to do so would be a reckless & negligent abuse of power."
, either or both of those arguments at least warrant consideration, they raise points that should be considered, and which deserve a reasonable response. But when you ignore the reality of people's concerns, especially while we're in the midst of a global pandemic of a deadly new infectious disease, when you ignore all of the relevant contexts and wail instead that:
'Govt can't make me stay home!'
, (which, BTW, contradicts over 230 years of American legal history in dealing with quarantines and public health emergencies
, or from the other side insist that:
'Govt must order everyone to stay home!'
, (which, BTW, flies in the face of over 230 years of American legal history, and people's right and need to earn that wealth which you might be counting on for the govt to redistribute to you)
, both of them are aiding and enabling the misuses and abuses of power to continue on unabated, both are pushing ideologies instead of pursuing justice, and both are failing at the fundamental requirement of living in Liberty - dealing with disputes with your fellow citizens by reasoning, rather than by forcing (which the ignoring of context is the intellectual equivalent of) your view over theirs .

I've spent multiple years acting for and writing on the importance of individual rights and liberty, and against centralizing power under increasingly abusive govt, so I'm not going to focus on those arguments again here (though you can find a few of them here). But centralizing power under government, isn't the only threat to liberty that we face; centralizing your concerns to only furthering your narrowed wishes and whims without regard to how they might affect your community, is also a threat to your, and our, liberty, and the failure to see that, is just as important for you to look into.

The fact is that the ability to see and show how and why the various governmental overreactions are wrongful, requires our utilizing and taking note of the very same contexts and reasonings that are excluded and denied by the claim of having an absolute and total 'right!' to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it, without a reasonable regard for the rights and concerns of your fellow citizens. The specious claim of 'rights!' made without a reasonable regard for the common good (note: the 'common good' is a very different thing from 'for the greater good!') is itself an individual affront to Liberty, as John Finnis, a respected professor of Natural Law (which is the theory of law that our Founder's era conceived of our nation through), noted in a comment on the nature of tyranny, that:
"...tyranny, in the classic conception, is bad one-man rule; ... But tyranny is any self-interested rule (where self is any number, not concerned with the common good but with their own interests)."
John Finnis, Natural Law & Natural Rights, pg. 469
Moronic memes, like this one (Redcoats: "Put on your masks." Minutemen:"Kiss our ass"), not only trivializes what the Minutemen showed up at Lexington & Concord 275 years ago this week to fight for, it isn't compatible with what they fought for. Those patriots, with liberty and the 'traditional rights of Englishmen' very much on their minds, were fighting for a much deeper conception of Liberty, than having their society & government yield to every 'rightful' whim a person might want to act upon, and they did so because they had the knowledge, understanding and wit to know that Liberty means something more than simply 'an absence of restraint'. They did not fight for a govt that could do and did do nothing, or for a society in which they could do anything they felt like, but to have a voice in the decisions that their govt made in securing their liberty - which is what "No taxation without representation!" meant. To reduce their understanding of Liberty, to 'Govt can't make me!' shows an amazing ignorance of the laws that those 'Sons of Liberty' themselves had chosen to write into their laws before, during, and for decades after the time of the American Revolution, laws which had to do with everything from what styles of clothing were acceptable to wear, to not being able to work, gamble or drink alcohol on Sundays, to state sponsored support of church attendance.

Are you seriously going to call those Minutemen 'Sheep'?! Or call them petty tyrants?!

As I said in a previous post "Context Matters: Individual Rights are neither privileges nor blank checks; Limited Govt is neither dictatorship nor anarchy in drag". Our Rights are Inalienable, and though exercising their powers IS contextual, it's always within the context of upholding & defending them - but you have to give reasonable consideration to the full matter, to be able to say.

Patriotic Perspective
To get some perspective on our original patriots understanding of Liberty meant to them, it might be useful to take a quick look at the oldest functioning Constitution in the world, drafted during the American Revolution by John Adams, where the constitution of the state of Massachusetts's Preamble, stated:
"The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them."[emphasis mine]
If you pay attention to their words, you'll see that their goal, their understanding of liberty, was that it was to be realized through a government of laws respecting their citizen's rights and privileges, which were to be reasonably formulated, debated, and passed into law by the people and their representatives, and administered in accordance to the laws of that written constitution. That process was what they understood to be the fundamental requirement for making liberty possible, respected and enjoyed by all. They were obedient to their laws not in the manner of obedient subjects, but as reasonable people governing themselves by reasonable means in both agreement and disagreement - THAT is what was meant by living in liberty. Whether or not the final outcome of a particular law agreed with their own personal position on it, was a distant and secondary consideration.

One thing the people of that time were not lacking, was a concern for their individual rights, as can be witnessed by the fact that prior to the constitution drafted by John Adams being taken up, another constitution had been proposed and was quickly rejected outright, largely because it lacked security for the individual rights of the people. Adam's version remedied that deficiency right off the bat with its first Article, a "...A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants...", which, stated:
Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."
Yet as mindful as they were of their rights, there were measures that were written in law, ranging from the sorts of local blue laws noted above, on up to their state constitutions requiring that all citizens residing in a town, be members of their parish church. There were citizens who disagreed with those laws, yet they all abided by them, not because they were either 'sheep' or tyrants who took their hard-fought liberty lightly, but because they took Liberty seriously, they understood that living in liberty meant governing themselves through a system of laws which respected their individual rights and were reasonably made and administered. If you want to argue against that, you also have to argue against the fact that their idea of individual rights and liberty were solid enough for slaves to begin suing for, and winning, their liberty under it (leading to slavery being effectively ended in Massachusetts, soon after their constitution's adoption). Those who might have chaffed at the dry Sunday laws didn't grab their muskets and say "F'you, I'm having a drink!", because they weren't little children who put more value in stomping their feet over losing an argument, than in living in liberty with their fellow citizens. That also didn't mean 'It's the law! It's settled!', as is evident by the fact that most of those measures were repealed by the 1820's - reasonable discussion continued, according to laws that were respectful of their inhabitants rights, and by that means the Liberty of all was enjoyed and maintained.

No serious person believed that Liberty was, or could be had, either under a system in which you did whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, without restraint, or a place where order was arbitrarily imposed upon the people by governmental decree.

And yet they were also fully capable of recognizing and handling emergencies throughout the 1790's, when diseases like small pox and cholera, repeatedly put the question of what was reasonable and what was tyrannical, to the test, and by civil discussion of disagreements over what was best, they understood their issues and implemented laws at the federal, state and local level of governments, for the quarantining & confinements of those who were sick, or who might reasonably be suspected of having been exposed to that sickness.

So there again, what was meant by Individual Rights in our Founder's era, is entirely incompatible with the popular notions of stompy footed zealots declaring that 'I do whatever I want!' today, and it is just as incompatible with 'You will obey for safety's sake!', so once again, is your idea of 'rights!', liberty and government, compatible with the concept of Liberty that this nation was founded upon?

'What are these 'rights!'of which you speak?'
And in answering that question, it's worth recapping a bit about what is (should be) understood, by 'our rights'. Your individual rights are inalienable, because they are inherent in your nature as a human being who must think (well or poorly) and act, and interact, etc., in order to live as a human being. Those rights are innumerable (see the 9th Amdt), as are our powers in exercising them (see 10th Amdt), but that does not give you unrestrained right and power to exercise them as you see fit.

Identifying the fact that you have unalienable rights and powers to act upon them, is not the same thing as saying that you have the liberty to act on them however you might choose to. Why? Because although the individual right to think & act, is inherent in your nature as a human being, it's also unfortunately inherent in your nature as a human being, to act upon irrational thoughts, and even to act abusively and violently towards others - those too are self-evident truths about human nature, but those are Not what our Founder's had in mind when they spoke of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. Why? What were they aiming at? They - unlike seemingly most people today - understood that doing what you want because you want it, wasn't an example of human liberty, but only of the freedom enjoyed by the animals. Having a thought come into your head, and choosing to act on it, was not seen by our Founders as a self-evident blank check which society had to stand by and watch you cash.

Nowhere in either our Constitution or our Declaration of Independence, does it presume or imply that you have the unquestionable power to exercise your rights however you want to, whenever you want to, and in any way that you want to, free from any reasonable regard for the lives, rights and property of others in the community, or to act without regard for the reasonable requirements needed for government to uphold and defend the rights and powers of the governed (without which those rights and powers become powerless in the face of anarchic force).

No, stop it, not even in the Bill of Rights! If you read how they were first proposed and reasonably reduced in number during their ratification (let alone the debates in their being introduced to congress), our Bill of Rights is full of the sorts of words ('respecting ','peaceably','being necessary to','consent of','against unreasonable', etc., etc., etc.,) that injected the 'reasonable' context into their declarations and meanings. To claim that your individual rights give you license to ignore the laws which your community has (or at least should have) reasonably written and designed to uphold and defend everyone's individual rights, is to seek loudly to be the most pettiest of tyrants (as noted above: "...tyranny is any self-interested rule (where self is any number, not concerned with the common good but with their own interests).").

Surely you've heard the phrase:
"Your right to swing your fist stops at my nose."
, right? If you've never paid attention to the implications of those words, there's no time like the present to remedy that. Your thoughts & actions do need to be exercised within some scope of what is reasonable for that context, and they need to be undertaken with a reasonable regard to the lives, property & rights of your fellow citizens.

Is your idea of 'rights!', compatible with that understanding of which our founders era formed their idea of Rights from? What led them to their conclusions, and what shaped their understanding of our unalienable rights, and of what they understood 'reasonable' to mean, came to us through what Thomas Jefferson referred to in his writing of the Declaration of Independence, as those 'harmonizing sentiments of the day', which were derived from the '...elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c...'. If you are unfamiliar with those works (not just their names, mind you, but their works), how likely is it that your idea of 'rights!', is compatible with theirs?

It was, and is, only within that framework of Western thought which Jefferson spoke of back then, and within which our Constitution was framed, and in respect to which We The People demanded that the proposed Constitution be amended with a few essential Individual Rights. That is where the revolutionary concept of restraining government from abusing and infringing upon those few essential rights (freedom of speech, assembly, religion, press; of security of property & compensation for reasonable govt takings, freedom from unreasonable search & seizure, trial of peers, and of unreasonably cruel & unusual punishment), came from - did your understanding of what you mean by 'your rights' pass through those same 'harmonizing sentiments', or did they just... 'mean' what you feel they should 'mean'?

Is your idea of 'rights!' compatible with what the Minutemen fought for? You cannot simply reach out and pluck those prized fruits from the tree of liberty that you most desire, while at the same time denying the nature and existence of the very tree that bore them!

I'm sorry for the merciless drumbeat here, but the common thread in the formation of our laws, and the common thread in what govt actions are permitted in times of calm or peril, is that the required measures and actions be reasonable, and that central to their being considered reasonable, was, and is, the people and their representatives reasoning over the proper context which they are to be applied to. Any laws and measures which do not abide by that, should be thrown out, those which do, may be upheld. Without that, no reasonable actions, or state of liberty, could be enjoyed, aided or maintained, by either you or me.

IOW, your individual rights DO NOT simply amount to your saying "F'You! I do what I want!", and it is disheartening, and more than a little despicable, that supposedly 'liberty!' loving people would promote memes that reduce the patriotic Minutemen's revolutionary concepts and the noble struggles which they put into motion at Lexington & Concord, to that of costumed fools who'd risk their own lives, and shed the blood of others, over such a triviality as "Kiss our ass, I'm not wearing a mask!"

On so many different levels, such notions as that diminishes, degrades, and insults, the ideals that our Founding Fathers risked their lives and comforts for, in order to secure an infinitely deeper ideal of liberty for themselves, and for their posterity (you & me).

The moving target of emergencies
That same understanding applies in emergencies, though the means of implementing them, necessarily changes, according to the context of the Emergency. Keep in mind that an emergency is "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action", while Laws are a codification of rules that a reasonable person can in normal circumstances be expected to consider across time, or as Aristotle put it: "the law is reason unaffected by desire". But the very nature of an emergency means that normal circumstances do not apply, and pretending that they do would make following those rules contrary to the purposes which those same rules were meant to apply to. Emergencies require and permit governments to take actions that they would not be permitted to take in normal circumstances. In an emergency, they are permitted to take unusual actions, not in order to violate your rights, but in order for government to fulfill its responsibility of performing its function of acting to preserve the lives, rights & property of the citizenry. For example:
Police, Firemen & other state officials in normal circumstances cannot enter your home without a warrant, and to do so would violate several of your essential rights, but if your house is on fire, they can not only break into your home, but carry you out of it without your permission, without violating your rights or the laws that were written to uphold and protect them.
Note: Is it necessary for government to have that power? Yes! Is it dangerous for that power to be in the hands of government? Yes! Is it important for the citizenry to keep a careful eye upon government's us of that power? Oh Hell Yes! And it's important that their emergency powers stop when the emergency ceases to be an emergency! An emergency needs a start and an end date. Yet is is still true that the nature of an emergency requires action to be taken within the context of the moment, it requires that government has an ability to act upon what seems to be known, then and there, yet that same space of time for acting on the moment, requires a continual re-evaluation of the nature of what is known, and how to respond to it. When the Coronavirus appeared to be a highly communicable and extraordinarily deadly new disease, officials had good cause and a responsibility, to declare lockdowns and quarantines (though I believe they failed to respect the context and subsidiarity necessary for respecting our individual rights).

Given the worst case scenarios assumed at the opening of this mess just a few weeks ago - that the Wuhan Flu was highly contagious, that it appeared to have an alarmingly high death rate, that people could become infected and be contagious for days, even over a week, before feeling any symptoms of infection, and being mindful that we didn't yet have the means, supplies, or facilities for coping with the scale of infection exhibited in Italy, and suspected to have occurred in communist china - then in that context, in those places that showed evidence of being emerging 'hot spots' of infection, some measure of lockdowns were warranted, and especially for the protection of those persons willing to risk becoming infected in order to do jobs that their community depended upon for the daily necessities of life - everything from working at the supermarket, to gas station workers, to truck drivers, police, fire, medical and hospital workers - the fact that they were willing to run the risk of getting infected, in order to provide what their community depended upon, should be welcomed, not taken for granted, or put at heightened risk by other residents, for trivial reasons - for a reasonable period of emergency (I begin to max out at 30 days on that, but that requires a detailed discussion of the actual circumstances by those in a position to know).

For someone who lives in a 'hot spot' area of infections, knowing that there's a heightened likelihood that they could unknowingly be carrying the virus and have no way of testing to find out, for them to circulate in public for no better reason than having the whim to do it, that is not an example of their exercising 'their' liberty, but a pathetic display of having a petulant disregard for the well being of others. Far from being exemplars of 'liberty!', they are examples of the pettiest of self absorbed tyrants. By the same note, those claiming to be 'responsible', who demand that people abandon their livelihoods, for periods that extend beyond their ability to sustain their (and our) lives, are also examples of petty tyrants (more on that in a coming post).

As more information is developed, some of the information, and assumptions of their severity, will necessarily be revised, and as we become more prepared to meet those conditions, and to handle the expected severity of them, those actions also must be re-examined, as does whether or not we are still operating within the context of an emergency. Those are the given moving targets of working through an emergency, it is inappropriate to look back on the little that was known at the start, from the context of what becomes known later, in order to condemn decision makers on the basis of what was not yet known. It is unreasonable to do or say so, and will very likely put your society in a position where people will be unwilling to help out in such situations in the future. But it is also inappropriate to fail to re-examine your situation in the now, in light of any new information available, to determine the best course for the immediate future.

Whether we are referring to times of calm or emergency, to meet them justly and in respects to liberty, requires our being reasonable. Coincidentally, being reasonable is also required in the writing, administering and obeying, of those laws. Also coincidentally (not), exercising your rights requires your behaving reasonably within the range of that context.

So I'll ask again, is your idea of 'rights!' compatible with the understanding of liberty that this nation was founded upon? Answering that is the real emergency that we are facing here in the year 2020. What needs to be protected and debated is not the government's powers, but how reasonably those powers are being exercised, and that requires not only your having given some serious thought to what your rights and powers are, but also giving considerable active attention to who you elect to government, and to what you and your children are taught, and to how aware those in power are aware of your knowing it.

Liberty depends upon you, and it is up to you reasonably involving yourself and your neighbors in self government.

If you shrug, if you prefer the ease of spouting the appealing positions given to you by your favorite ideology; if they leave it to you... you will be left to them.

Good luck with that. And may there be a posterity that can forget that we were once fellows.

Pay attention, learn what you should know, and ... be reasonable.

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