Thursday, March 30, 2006

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Today, over at Real Clear Politics, fellow Marylander Gregory Kane takes Democrats in the state to task over the issue of rights and responsibilities. Kane focuses on the reinstatement of voting rights for convicted felons, but leads with these statements:
Isn't it time we started talking about the other r-word?

We're all pretty familiar with the first one: rights. We all believe in rights. In fact, America may have a surplus of rights.

Our founding fathers came up with a Bill of Rights. Too bad they didn't give us a Bill of Responsibilities to go along with them.

That's the other r-word: responsibilities. And nowhere is there a better example of our willingness to abrogate responsibility in the name of rights than in the push for felon voting rights.
Generally, I figure, that absent some compelling reason not to, a felon who has served his time, including probation, should be able to petition to have his voting rights reinstated. However, that is not what bothers me most. Kane only glancingly deals with the matter, but I have a concern about the whole issue of rights and responsibilities.

Kane is right, we as Americans have a surfeit of "rights" but a real deficit of "responsibilities." We take for granted the freedoms we have, to such a point that we believe we have more freedoms that we really do. I can't tell you the number of times I have heard Members of Congress refer to rights not actually present in either the Constitution or the statutes, everything from a right to health care and health insurance to a right to an education. Anyone who believes these rights to exist I challenge them to cite me a relevant state or federal law granting such rights.

Yet we never talk about the responsibilities that come along with rights. For a great theoretical discussion of the opposites of the same coin of rights and responsibilities, I commend to you Robert A. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" (by the way get the book--the movie does not cover such topics). In the book a teacher speaks of rights and responsibilities jointly, one cannot exist without the other. One particulary passage deals with the inalienable rights, that fantastic poetry of Thomas Jefferson, thusly. What right to life does a man drowning in the ocean have? What right to liberty does a man who breaks the law have? Although you can pursue happiness, there is no guarantee you will catch it.

Here Heinlein got it right. The right to liberty (which is what we are really talking about when we talk about most "rights") is coupled closely with a responsibility to take care or exercise a duty. There is a right to free speech, but not to slander. So we can speak our mind, but we must also exercise a responsiblity not to besmirch another's reputation without supporting facts.

America is a land of laws and constitutions. But in a "me-first" society, we rarely think of the impact our actions upon others when we exercise our "rights." That is the responsibility we have. So when you exercise your right to think, try thinking about the responsibilities as well.

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