The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, March 31, 2005

ALL-US: Civil Liberty

This is a partial response to Bill Quick's challenge to enunciate a coherent conservative policy. I will address his second plank, "Civil Liberty".

There are two balancing points I can see. One is the need to distinguish between protection from harm and protection from insult; the latter leads inevitably to restrictive speech codes and a loss of civil liberty. The second is the tradeoff between allowing individual freedom of action and indulging discrimination. Libertarian ideals have too often been used as a cloak for racism and sexism, and ALL must avoid being tainted with that brush. [Conversely, the cause of equality has been used as a cover for government intrusion.] I use "person" rather than the more ringing "man" in what follows (though I draw the line at "he or she").

OPPORTUNITY Every person is the best judge of how to conduct his own life. People may choose safety or adventure, wealth or leisure, family or independence. The proper role of government is never to control these choices, but only to defend the liberties that enable them. Their choices may be wrong, but the government must not protect them by restraint. Prior restraint of conduct, like prior restraint of speech, is an abuse of government power and an unacceptable curtailment of freedom. Restraint in the name of the good of society is simply the tyranny of the majority under another name. The government has only the power to punish those who break established law; and laws should be established only as a last resort, to defend those who have no other means of defense.

RESPONSIBILITY People will choose most wisely when they bear the consequences. Government action to mitigate the harm that people cause to themselves is a reward for recklessness, and will breed more of the same. The opportunity that liberty creates will offer second chances to those who have so far failed, and also to those who have succceeded; it will lift both up instead leveling both together. Localities should govern themselves whenever possible. Local government keeps the consequences of choices proximate to their causes, encouraging better choices.

FREEDOM The Constitution enumerates certain rights and freedoms, which are guaranteed to all. Government may not justly curtail or restrict these rights, or limit them to some part of the populace. No person may create new rights. If the broad and universally valuable rights already guaranteed are found to be inadequate, the Constitution may be amended appropriately. Unfettered creation of narrowly tailored rights is an attempt to subvert the democratic process, and weakens the standing of the crucial rights.

JUSTICE Opportunity should always remain within the reach of the helpless. We have an obligation to ensure that each child may rise as far as his abilities and choices permit. We cannot redress all suffering or prevent all hardship. We cannot enforce equality, and to attempt to do so is an assault on personal responsibility. Just as our desire for fairness should be tempered by mercy, so must our mercy be tempered by respect. Our obligation to help anyone is always less that that person's obligation to help himself.

[Update 4 April 2005: Added support for federalism.]