“You want rights? Ask ‘em…they’ll read ‘em!” – Michael Franti
Are you free?
Think about it carefully.
If you are making payments on anything, you’re not free of debt.
If your income depends on investments, you’re not free of capitalism.
If your house is jammed with stuff, you’re not free of materialism.
If you have to work for a living, you’re definitely not free.
Even if your moral compass is a windsock, you’re not exempt from the demands freedom makes on those who exercise it and protect it.
Because once you choose to use your freedom – to exercise it – your actions connect you to your responsibility for them, and it is a grave error to believe otherwise.
Freedom without responsibility
What freedoms did you willingly give up to get that car loan, invest in a larger house or the stock market, fill that larger house with even more stuff, or take that job?
The answer? You volunteered to accept a limit on some of your freedom. You exchanged some of your freedom for a privilege: to “own” that new car, invest, buy more stuff, or take that job. You exercised your freedom responsibly.
You made an honest exchange. You agreed to place limits on some of your freedoms and accepted with full responsibility for the outcome. That’s just how it works.
You exchanged the privilege to exercise your freedom for certain limits on that freedom.
If you are an active-duty military service member, you’re intimately aware of both your responsibility to protect everyone else’s freedom and the exchange of much of your own freedom for doing so.
- In exchange for military service, I constrain my freedom by a chain of command that guides my duties to protect freedom for everyone else.
- In exchange for a paycheck, my job limits my freedom, especially in military service.
- In exchange for the freedom to accept the risk, I place some of my treasure out of my reach and out of my control – that is, “at-risk” – to see if it will grow.
- In exchange for a larger TV/new mobile device/backyard BBQ island/whatever I will accept greater insecurity about paying for more stuff in the future by not saving enough now.
- In exchange for a new car and more flexible mobility, I will voluntarily accept the limits both of increased costs for transportation and how I might otherwise use my money.
Our choices limit our exercise of freedom. We make a fair exchange to exercise our freedom with increased responsibility.
Intellectual honesty and the exercise of freedom
Freedom on its own it just an idea. Americans accept the idea of freedom as a primary and intrinsic “natural” right, a natural right that applies to every American equally. Freedom is what makes America’s founding documents so groundbreakingly important.
The rule of law exists so that the majority of people in a free state can be free to enjoy privileges: productive employment, a new car, investments, a place to live, food to eat. The rule of law also constrains the exercise of freedom for the safety and common good of the majority.
Here’s how that works.
One might argue that freedom means I could break things and hurt people, and that argument is unassailable…until I exercise that freedom and actually do those things. At that moment, if I attempt to claim my natural right to freedom (to break things and hurt people), I’ve divorced myself from my responsibility for my exercise of freedom. In addition to any claim I might make to my freedom to break things and hurt people, I’ve also broken the rule of law: I’ve harmed others and damaged stuff.
Would a reasonable person stand for being hurt or having their things damaged? Would you? It’s almost instinctual to want reparations, and the rule of law also provides for that kind of exchange in the form of punishment for those who do not exercise their freedoms responsibly.
It can be easy to forget – especially in a heated debate or national crisis – that we exchange the exercise of freedom for greater personal responsibility. To ignore that relationship is intellectually dishonest. No one would stand for the unchecked exercise of freedom to do whatever one wants with impunity, especially in oppressive regimes where the guaranteed natural right of freedom enjoyed by Americans is absent. World wars have been fought over this very issue.
To accept the connection between the exercise of freedom and responsibility is intellectually honest; to act as if this connection doesn’t exist is not.
What about “life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff?”
Every year, Americans get all misty-eyed about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fireworks and hoopla of American Independence Day remind everyone of the bloody cost of that independence.
Do Americans really understand how these three “natural” rights are made possible, not only by the blood shed to claim and defend them, but by the collective responsibility of those who enjoy them? Do Americans understand that the exercise of these natural rights – the fundamental freedoms of America – cannot be free of responsibility? The majority of Americans do. Perhaps the majority of the free world – and a silent majority of the oppressed world – does, too.
If I do anything in my pursuit of happiness that diminishes your pursuit of happiness, I haven’t diminished the natural right either of us have to happiness, but I’ve certainly diminished the exercise of your freedom. The legal rights Americans enjoy – that famous “rule of law” we keep mentioning – punishes me if I infringe on your natural rights.
That is, if I choose to exercise my natural rights to your detriment, the rule of law determines how I will be punished for my failure. Failure? Yes: I failed to take responsibility for what I did, and that interfered with your natural rights, so the rule of law penalizes me – often by diminishing my freedom in some way.
The rule of law also punishes those who break the covenant of responsibility I have with you for the exercise of your legal rights; if I infringe your legal rights irresponsibly, I will be punished.
Covenant of responsibility
In addition to the obvious treason in it, there is an implied blood oath in the American Declaration of Independence: that all Americans – not just those who signed the Declaration itself – are sworn to accept responsibility for the exercise of American freedoms. American citizens are expected to follow the law of the land in how we exercise our legal rights, yes, but we are also responsible to one another for the ways we exercise our natural rights.
Punishment is harsh for the infringement of another’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness; American law punishes murder, kidnap, theft, and great bodily harm more harshly than many other crimes.
The Declaration was written and signed by intellectually honest white men, men for whom honor and integrity were always implied. That’s a fact. Had there been women in political power in the mid-18th-Century, or had the majority skin color of the Colonies not been white, the Declaration would probably still have been written, and American Independence achieved. But the American Declaration we got is the one we have, and it’s not really all that bad, provided we remember its implications.
Factually, the Declaration represented a huge push back against the King of England and the limits of freedom he placed on the English Colonies. Not only had the King severely limited the Colonists’ legal rights, but he had also begun to limit the exercise of their natural ones as well. The Declaration called the King to account for breaking his covenant of responsibility with the Colonies and set the stage for the birth of America.
The Declaration, however, did not free Americans to exercise their freedom irresponsibly. It stated to the world at large that no monarch, ruler, or duly-elected government ought to be permitted to act as the King of England acted with respect to his colonists, and argued for the colonists’ natural rights to establish boundaries for the responsible exercise of freedom and place the rule of law around that exercise to protect the majority of citizens.
The Declaration implied a covenant of responsibility for the exercise of freedom and vested that responsibility in all American citizens.
That implied covenant of responsibility has eroded little by little ever since America declared its independence. Not because the American founding documents were written by one particular gender or race, but because when so many individuals pursue happiness, things get crowded, and the covenant of responsibility we have to one another gets harder and harder to keep.
What is that covenant? To recognize that the exercise of our natural rights requires us to act with honor and integrity. King George did not, so the colonists became Americans and took responsibility for their own freedom.
Next, the new Americans established basic legal rights – rights that had never been written down until that time – to guide the responsible exercise of American freedom. That Bill of Rights still guides the responsible exercise of freedom in America, even after it has been amended sixteen times, sometimes in error (Amendment 18 enacted nationwide prohibition of liquor; Amendment 21 repealed Amendment 18).
History shows us that, in its freedom, even when America has made poor choices, she has taken responsibility for them and made the necessary corrections.
What about you?
Are you – are any of us – willing to accept that kind of responsibility? What responsibility do Americans take for a minority of Americans who strut around in camo gear with semi-automatic weapons? For a minority of Americans who destroy public and private property to make some point? For a minority of Americans whose hate speech diminishes the pursuit of happiness for everyone else?
The intellectually honest answer to those questions?
Americans are bound by our implied covenant to one another to accept responsibility for the freedoms we have, both to exercise them within the rule of law and to punish those who abuse the rule of law.
That same intellectual honesty must apply to our natural rights. Terror and hate are antithetical to pursuing happiness, and all Americans share responsibility for any American who terrorizes America and any American whose hatred breaks the covenant of being American.
What about the government?
It’s not enough anymore to expect that government will fix things while all the rest of us go about our lives as usual. We have arrived at yet another American moment of comeuppance. If the American rule of law is to fail, America will no longer exist, but natural rights are not uniquely American. Nothing that America’s government would or could do will change that fact.
There is a worldwide hunger for natural rights, for freedom from government oppression of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; America’s microcosm of democracy could be either a beacon of hope or a tale of caution.
Which will serve us best? Which will serve the world best? Make no mistake: there are intellectually honest freedom-hungry citizens of the world who are eager to see America answer this question on the side of freedom with responsibility.
And there are intellectually dishonest freedom-hating world citizens eager to use America’s tribulations to destroy the responsible exercise of freedom, both in America and throughout the world.
Do Americans have the courage to rise up together and overthrow the tyranny of hatred, the cancer of domestic terrorism, and the miasma of our government? Intellectual honesty reveals the cost to our freedoms when exchanged for failed, restrictive programs such as these.
- A war on poverty that has conscripted more people into poverty now than when it was declared fifty years ago
- A war on terrorism that has pushed America’s under-funded military to the limits of mobility and usefulness as a worldwide police force
- Government-enabled hateful divisiveness based on skin color or wealth?
The difficult answer to all of these questions – for me – is that I hope the majority of Americans have the intellectual honesty we need to make a course correction, and soon.
What about you? Will you toe the line for democracy one more time, or will you abandon or ignore your vote – and your responsible exercise of freedom together with it – in favor of disorder, tyranny, exposure to the worst most irresponsible exercise of freedom imaginable?
America is still a democracy and we the people of America that have allowed our exercise of freedom to erode in greed, privilege, and fear. We could have done it differently, but that’s how a democracy works. It’s a learning experience. A teachable moment.
Consider your options
To keep it simple, let’s consider a few non-binary choices followed by a binary call to action.
How many of us pull one voting lever or the other, see things as either right or wrong, black or white, good or bad? Intellectual honesty in binary thinking only applies to things that are directly related, such as freedom and responsibility. If we’re honest about it, binary thinking just doesn’t apply to issues where there are more than two sides, and it’s intellectually dishonest to compress a multi-faceted issue into a binary choice. For example:
- Black Lives Matter. Of course they do, but all lives matter in the same way, and everyone’s natural rights must be honored in America because that’s what America is all about. (Want opposite examples? Consider Hong Kong or Greece, Spain, and Italy for how things can work in a totalitarian or socialist state.) The BLM movement weakens itself by restricting its focus to a minority of Americans when the necessary solution impacts every American, and no viable solution can exist without every American’s cooperation and assent, regardless of the color of their skin or prior history of abuse.
- Pro-Choice / Pro-Life. Of course, a woman has the natural right to choose whether or not to have a child. And of course, murder is wrong. But those binary legal options do not skillfully address the issue of natural rights and its trade-offs in ways that resolve it without depriving one side or the other of the responsible exercise of freedom. The intellectually dishonest attempt to equate natural and legal rights doesn’t work here or anywhere else it’s tried, and the intellectual dishonesty of a false binary choice hasn’t resolved this issue fairly for anyone.
- White supremacy. By 2045, white people will be a minority of Americans. That’s not a great thing if you are a white supremacist, but it isn’t a bad thing if you are a Black Lives Matter activist. Unfortunately, there are intellectually dishonest people on both sides of the issue who believe that sustaining hate is better than anything else, even natural inter-marriage between people of different skin colors. A natural right infringement of the exercise of freedom to pursue happiness doesn’t seem to occur to American white supremacists, whose convictions include the fallacy that skin color somehow confuses hatred with the natural right to pursue happiness and gives white people some natural right that those of other skin colors do not naturally have.
- Gay marriage. Again: this natural right infringement by people unwilling to be intellectually honest about marriage has only led to greater divisiveness. The natural right to marry – the purfuit of happineff, remember? – is opposed systemically by laws that prevent same-sex couples from adopting or fostering children, as well as by many American institutions that talk the talk of love and inclusion but walk the walk of discrimination.
- Criminal justice. Systemic fear is built into the United States Constitution, right in the 13th This embedded, irrational fear unjustly keeps people in prison, remains with them after their debt to society has been paid in the form of a lost legal right to vote, and stigmatizes many for life, especially sex offenders. With all the evidence supporting restorative justice for many – but not all – criminals, the debate over criminal justice – and the systemic nature of its unjust impact on minorities for more than a century – is much more nuanced and can’t be resolved without intellectual honesty that admits all viewpoints to the conversation. More than any other issue, successful reform of the criminal justice system may have the greatest positive impact on America, provided that it can be understood as a paradox that requires thinking far beyond either/or.
Instead of either/or binary choices, maybe it’s time to think about both/and solutions. It has never been honest to simply ignore inconvenient facts when they don’t support one’s binary viewpoint, and it’s an insult to any thinking person that the important issues of our era have been framed that way by our elected officials and those who serve them.
Americans are better and smarter than that.
A call to action – and the last binary choice you ought to consider
America has gone down a more or less binary road for more than 200 years and done fairly well at it, but the results we have are…well…they’re what we see around us right now. The intellectually honest question now is this: how much longer can binary thinking support America?
Binary thinking works well when encoded in the rule of law: choices about limits to the exercise of freedom can often be quite clear. But binary thinking fails in an implied covenant, where two or more parties must discuss and discern the way forward on issues where more than two options could be equally good.
There are amazing Americans doing amazing things, some of them worldwide. There are amazing activists following the trail of democracy worldwide, too. Good stuff happens when intellectually honest people come together to find a third way – a non-binary way – a way that aligns with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those people are the new pioneers. The Unknown Territory is waiting for them to explore, map, and settle. Perhaps one or more of them will rise to be an American leader for this new shape of America. Until then, you have a very important binary choice:
- Choose to exercise your freedom responsibly and contribute to the solution
- Choose to add to the noise and fury, signifying nothing (to paraphrase a dead white guy who was an expert about such things and knew better).
Which choice inspires you? Raise up the side of noise and fury to the detriment of the responsible exercise of freedom for all and one could wind up in a totalitarian state with vastly limited freedom. Raise up the side of the responsible exercise of freedom, and not only will the noise and fury subside, but the potential for a third way also arises – a more inclusive, less hateful, less partisan, more skillful way.
What will you choose? How will your walk and talk change because of your choice? It’s trendy these days to shout “If you’re not for us you’re against us!” but even that is intellectually dishonest. It divides rather than includes.
I’m all for supporting natural rights in America, and for American influence and inspiration toward that kind of freedom worldwide. America hasn’t been so great at over the course of my lifetime (hey, Boomer!), but if we find new ways to combine our talents with our natural rights, Americans may once again hope to join with other intellectually honest people worldwide and lead the world toward freedom.
And, in that future world, perhaps the rights Michael Franti asks us only to read may fly off the printed page to sing in more hearts than ever before: “Stay human.”