Tag Archives: Civil Liberties

The human cost of civil liberties

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Living in a free society rooted in individual liberty and the rule of law is not for the frail or fragile. There are considerable personal and societal human costs, but the alternative is despotism, the human costs of which history has demonstrated to be substantially more severe. 

When the Constitution of the United States was written, it rested, and continues to rest, on the principle that sovereignty resides in the individual. Those individuals can bind together as a people to form a government. The people then grant the government specific powers to exercise on behalf of the people for the common good. The Constitution was written to define the structure of the national government and then grant that government specific powers. It was understood that the national government could not exercise any power not specifically granted to it by the people in its founding document. Because of that understanding, many of the founders thought that a Bill of Rights was superfluous.

Fortunately, other founders disagreed and insisted on a Bill of Rights to make it crystal clear to that there are certain rights of the people that are absolutely inviolable. The end result was the first 10 amendments of the Constitution which were drafted, debated and passed by many of the same people who signed the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights was specifically written to protect individuals from the arbitrary coercive power of government and it has protected Americans for more than 200 years. But those protections do not come without cost. Many of them result in mayhem and deaths that could have been prevented in a more authoritarian state without a Bill of Rights.

For example, many of the protections in the Bill of Rights allow criminals to remain free to brutalize their fellow citizens. The Fourth Amendment says that people have a right to, “be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This requires that the police have a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed a crime and follow due process in order to search someone’s person or property. Sometimes criminals are able to hide behind these procedures and commit more crimes while the police are unable to act.

The Eighth Amendment says in part that, “excessive bail shall not be required.” This amendment is why alleged murders and rapists are able to bail out of jail even when the evidence is overwhelming that they are guilty. Sometimes, those murderers and rapists continue to wreak havoc while on bail until the judicial system can finally process them.

The Sixth Amendment says in part that a criminal on trial has a right to, “be confronted with the witnesses against him.” This is the right that forces the government to present witnesses to an accused criminal, thus allowing the accused to take retribution against those witnesses or even murder them to halt the trial, as happened recently with a drug lord in Milwaukee.

All of these individual protections that keep criminals on the streets are rooted in the philosophy that “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer,” as written by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765. While a noble and high standard to set for a government to deprive an individual of his or her rights, it also necessitates that our government lets a lot of very violent people roam our streets because the government cannot reach that standard.

Beyond protecting possible criminals, our Bill of Rights also forbids our government from punishing thoughts or actions that do not violate someone else’s rights. The First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing someone for exercising their religion, peacefully assembling, speaking, petitioning the government or proclaiming thoughts in the press. That comes with a cost. People are free to preach hateful religions, glorify violent thoughts and images, whip up a mob into a murderous rage and much more. America has seen a lot of murders, assaults, damaged property, and even wars that could have been prevented had it not been for the First Amendment.

Then there is the Second Amendment, the favorite target of the left after every murderous rampage committed with a gun. The Second Amendment protects individuals from the government restricting or prohibiting their ownership and use of weapons. While the use of weapons in our society is overwhelmingly positive and a vital backstop against tyranny, there are also times when weapons are used to maim and kill innocent people.

It is not always easy or safe living in a free society. It requires vigilance, effort, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to accept consequences for one’s own actions and the unpredictable actions of others. It is much easier and safer to live under an authoritarian government – as long as you do and think what your government tells you.