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I have the right to…

25 July 2010

Yes, but. That is the correct answer to this statement within the context of our democracy. The “but” is of infinite importance. There are a multitude of rights we receive in this country; it’s part of what has made us a model for many other democracies throughout the world. More or less, people get their rights. There are notable exceptions, but in comparison with the world at large, people here are pretty well off.

However, the good function of this system is reliant upon the maintenance of the “but”. Yes, you have rights, but only insofar as they do not hinder the rights of others. You have the right to free speech, as long as your speech does not stop anyone else’s speech or threaten and demean them–see libel, slander, and hate speech. You have the right to assemble, as long as your assembly does not hinder the rights of others–violent protests, intimidation.

There are two corollaries of this that this seem to be lost on many Americans today. The first is in the matter of religion. Yes, you have the right to worship as you please, but that worship cannot infringe upon the rights of others not to worship like you. The Founding Fathers protected against one form of this: state-mandated worship–the State cannot compel you to believe or worship one way or another. But the other is equally important: your religious beliefs cannot be imposed upon others, whether in areas of belief (“under God”, anti-Islamicism) or in areas of morality and practice (homosexuality, abortion, etc.).

The second corollary is the so-called “majority rule”. Yes, the majority rules in simple democracy, but in order for it to be a free democracy, the rights of the minority must be protected. The majority wins, but its winning cannot take away the rights of the minority as equal citizens. For an example, I take the Defense of Marriage Act: a decision was made by a majority (mostly heterosexuals, composing around 90% of the population at large) that unfairly targets a minority’s right; it is not a legitimate example of a majority decision because it violates the notion of equality under the law as guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This latter is commonly called the “tyranny of the majority” (coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, expounded by J.S. Mill). Mill writes in his On Liberty:

…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.

Sound familiar? If not, go read about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Bill; or, read pretty much anything coming out of the Tea Party.

So yes, you have the right to [fill in the blank]. But your rights cannot take away the rights of others. That is the commitment that American democracy has made. Take it or leave it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. moriahbethany permalink
    25 July 2010 13:17

    Agreed, mind if I repost this?

    • Patrick Burrows permalink*
      25 July 2010 14:08

      Cite me, but sure thing!

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