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Individual Rights v. Societal Responsibility

March 25, 2010

The ongoing debate over the recent Health Care Reform bill has been a catalyst to my thoughts lately. It’s made me ponder the value of an individual’s rights when compared to the cost of being a responsible member of society.

Our Constitution and Bill of Rights grant us many individual freedoms. We have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have the right to say what we want and believe what we want. We have the right to a fair trial. We have the  right to own property* and to have representation in government.

The rights that American citizens are granted have been limited by government for the benefit of society. The right to free speech has been limited so that speech that incites violence is not covered by that right. We can believe what we want, but we are limited from imposing our beliefs on other American citizens. We can pursue happiness, but not when that happiness comes by violating another person’s rights. We have the right to liberty, but not if we commit crimes against individuals or society.

There might be some temptation to see society as a thing, or as an entity completely separate from the individual. It can be argued that Society is, indeed, an entity, but only in that it is a single unit composed of many individuals with a shared cultural identity. We are all Americans, and we are all part of the American society.

Our government is one of our rights. We have, as individuals, elected other individuals to represent our interests, and all these elected individuals come together, in a form of sub-culture, that helps define and direct our society as a whole. I used to think that government was corrupt, and that the only way to “fix” it was to revolt. I’ve changed my mind. Our government is no more corrupt than we are as individuals, since each Senator, each Congressman and Congresswoman, and each President are simply the elected representation of the individuals in society. Every election is a revolution, and every politician in office is there because we chose to put him there. Should we demand a more perfect government? Then we have to demand a more perfect society, and in doing so demand more perfect individuals.

The Tea Party is making those demands. The health care debate has brought into the forefront the demand for individual liberties, and the elimination of societal limits on those liberties. “I’ll decide if and when I’ll give to charity” has become the anthem. They argue that it violates their rights because it requires them to be insured, and because it takes their property (taxes) to pay for health care for those who can’t afford it.

To answer those demands, I first have to explain what the rights society provides. Society is essential to individual liberties. I’ll explain what I mean.

One of the basic functions of society is to provide services for the good of every individual.  Society creates and maintains roads and transit systems. This might be one of the most tangible of the “rights” provided by society, in that there is tremendous freedom in being able to easily and comfortably move from location to location.

Society also provides for the right to own property, the right to life and the right to pursue happiness. Police officers literally are the enforcers of the law, maintaining and protecting each individual’s ability to pursue these rights. They protect individual properties from vandalism and theft, they protect life from assault and murder, and they protect lawful order and peace.

Society protects it’s individuals from unlawful threats to their individual rights, but it also defends it’s citizens from the abridgment of their rights from outside influences through military action.

Thus, society also grants rights and privileges to it’s members. But, as with anything, being a contributing member of society also involves responsibilities.

Society has the responsibility of providing care of the elderly, young, poor, and infirm individuals who are incapable of taking care of themselves. In our past, communities used to care for these people as best they could, although more often than not the poor and downtrodden, the elderly and orphans were neglected and ignored by society, unless they were fortunate enough to have relatives who provided for them. As our society has become less isolated and as technology created a global market for goods and services, this smaller, outdated model is no longer even possible – small communities cannot effectively compete in a global health care and insurance market. Long gone are the days of the local doctor who would make house calls and accept payments in eggs or fresh butter. Since there are, and always will be elderly, poor, young and infirm individuals who are unable to take care of themselves, our larger society, led by the government we elected to represent us, has the responsibility of providing societal benefits to these people.

The very rights that individuals enjoy are dependent on society. Society gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Society enforces the laws of society. What happens when the contraints of society are removed?

During the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, mobs of individuals, unrestrained by the laws of society, looted and pillaged private property, and murdered individuals in the city. In L.A., the race riots over the Rodney King incident led to temporary anarchy. Without society, individual rights no longer exist.

Any individual who breaks the laws of society has his freedoms revoked, often quite literally by revoking his freedom through incarceration. But what of the Tea Party protests? What of American citizens who demand the recognition of their individual freedoms while denying the responsibilities of society?

It is a form of thievery to demand the individual rights and freedoms that being a member of society creates and protects, while refusing to accept the responsibilities of being a member of that society. It is thievery to take the assistance and protection that society provides, while demanding that assistance and protection of the vulnerable in society be an individual choice. It is selfish, unpatriotic, and ultimately self-defeating to attempt to escape the responsibilities that being a member of society entails.

Individual rights are of tremendous importance, and must not be usurped by society. Civil rights, or the rights of sub-groups of society, are equally important, and must not be usurped by either individuals or the larger society. The rights and responsibilities of society as a whole are also of utmost importance, and must not be usurped or destroyed by individuals. To weaken or destroy one is to weaken or destroy all… and America is far too great to allow it to be destroyed because of selfishness and thievery.


* I’m glad to be able to state that I have the right to own property and the right to vote for my representation in government. When the Constitution was first written, women did not have the right to own property. Women did not have the right to vote when every state voted to take away this right in 1777. It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment rectified this. The fact that I am now able to own property, and to vote, is a testament to the importance of promoting civil rights for all people.

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