Thursday, September 04, 2003

Wishes versus Individual Rights

Tibor R. Machan

When social life becomes politicized, one is tempted to present all one’s wishes to politicians and bureaucrats because they have the power to fulfill them. A local resident, for example, wishes that a restaurant down the street from him not play any music he doesn’t like, anytime of the day. Even though the various bureaucracies dealing with these matters gave permission for the restaurant to feature live music, this resident wrote to the politician who represents the area, who then managed to sic the AFT on the proprietor and the music got banned. Or a parcel of land is being planned for development, all in line with the rules, passing various boards and commissions. But, no, those with strong wishes against it are needling their politicians and even the courts to get the thing stopped.
The case of the Alabama court house display of the Ten Commandments is not unlike these others. A great many people who are devout Christians wish for one of their icons to be displayed in the court house, so that’s what should happen, period. Or many wish that there be no smoking in any restaurants in California or New York or wherever, so they appeal to the politicians and bureaucrats and they, in turn, deliver.
The examples could continue ad infinitum. This kind of populism – enacting into law whatever enough people wish for – is, of course, a form of dictatorship. No, not the dictatorship of one powerful person such as a Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin but of several thousand or millions who happen to share strong wishes among themselves.
But notice that there is also a tradition in the American system that opposes such lynch mob politics. This tradition emphasizes individual rights and their protection by the law. According to that tradition, within one’s own realm of authority – that is, when it comes to oneself, one’s home, one’s business establishment – the decisions lie in one’s own hands not in those of politicians. And the public authority within that venerable tradition is severely limited.
In short, in the American political tradition of limited government, politicians and bureaucrats have just one basic job: to secure the rights of all individuals. They are not there to promote the projects of any group of these individuals.
No one’s favorite idea is supposed to get special government endorsement or support. If I do not wish for people to smoke, I am supposed to advocate this, promote it through various voluntary means without getting politicians to back my wish and ban smoking for folks who don’t want to live by my wishes. Or if I have a strong wish for my fellow citizens to pay attention to my ideals and principles, I must proselytize on my own and with my cohorts without getting government to pick us for favorites, as against all the others with their own ideals and principles. Unless the music from the restaurant is unreasonably loud, just because some cranky guy nearby wishes there to be none in “his” region, he does not get to call the shots with the aid of the local sheriff or the state senator. Nor do a bunch of citizens get to have their wish for “no more people and homes in ‘our’ neighborhood” fulfilled by means that crush the rights of others – they have the option to purchase the land they want unoccupied or to persuade the owner not to build on it, in peaceful, non-coercive ways.
But this idea that government upholds the basic rules of a free society and leaves the rest to peaceful cooperation – or lack thereof – among the rest of the citizenry seems to have very little standing in our day. Everyone thinks his or her wishes should rule, never mind other’s rights and the limits of state.
Yet, it is exactly that idea of politics – whereby government is supposed to secure our rights and we must go about getting our wishes without its favoring us with its forcible intervention – that made this country special and politically sound in the world. That is what earned it the label, “leader of the free world.” For the only freedom that’s really worth having is individual freedom.

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