Saturday, June 30, 2007

Do Our Rights Come With Obligations?

There’s a lot of talk about rights today, in the newspapers, magazines, talk radio and on TV. For instance, Do we have a right to health care? Does the Supreme Court respect our right to free speech by siding with the school department in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” decision? Does the White House violate our right to privacy with its wire tapping policy?

Rights certainly are a cornerstone of our democracy. After the Constitution was ratified our founding fathers recognized that there needed to be some protections for the people from coercive or intrusive government behavior and they produced the first ten amendments to the Constitution - the Bill of Rights. And what masterpieces these two documents are. With them America has become the greatest, most powerful, freest country the world has ever seen.

When I was talking recently with a friend about whether all citizens have a right to health care [I believe we do] it occurred to me that we never discuss, along with our expected rights, whether citizens have obligations as well.

John Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961 famously said, “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” Inspiring words, yet today we hear nary a peep about obligations.

After 9/11 we were told to go shopping so the terrorists might know we are not intimidated by them. No mention of our obligations, our duties, our sacrifices. The idea of citizen responsibility, obligation, seems to have vanished.

As we approach July Fourth 2007 I’m proposing that from now on we make this ‘quaint’ concept part of every conversation about rights. For instance -

Right to Freedom from Hunger:

We provide soup kitchens, social service agencies, public assistance programs, such as food stamps to feed the poor. But do the recipients of these services, both government and private, have any obligations?

Are food stamps also “Twinkie” stamps? Or should recipients of food stamps have an obligation to use them as intended? Is there an obligation to know basic nutrition, to know that cigarettes and alcohol are not in any food group? Should repeated failure to observe these obligations jeopardize eligibility for assistance?

Right to Health Care:

When the poor are insured by Medicaid as their ‘right’, should there be an obligation associated with that right?

Do people who exercise their right to free medical care have an obligation to stop smoking? to avoid becoming obese? to exercise, or at least try a little?

Right to Free and Fair Elections:

The right to vote is perhaps the most important right of all conferred upon us by the Constitution. Do we have any obligations as we exercise this right?

Should the right to vote be accompanied by an obligation to understand the issues on the ballot? To be at least familiar with the candidates and their positions on issues? To be able to read and understand English? Should these be a prerequisite for voting?

I realize that some of these questions are controversial and such obligations or requirements have been abused in the past.

But when concern for our personal 'rights' blinds us to personal obligations, society risks a downward spiral from which it might never return. There must be a balance between the two.

If this awakens in us the idea that as American citizens, we have obligations to our fellow citizens and our country, we might once again become the nation President Kennedy spoke to on Friday, January 20, 1961.

But Maybe It's Just Me.


eileen said...

Dear Harvey,

I agree. But it's a darn sight easier figuring out the rights than the appropriate obligations.

I like the comment recently Michael Moore made concerning an American living in France. He asked why the French are such activists & the Americans not-so (even though most Amer. are against the war). The American replied that the basic difference is the the French government is afraid of its citizens while the American citizens are afraid of their government.
Interesting thoughts, indeed.

Harvey said...

Never said anything about it being easy ;-)

The French perspective is interesting. Probably something to do with a guillotine