Sunday, June 7, 2009

Individual Liberties

The question is, to what extent should an individual have rights and at which point can the state restrict the rights of the individual.   The discussion has been centered on the topic of gay marriage and how allowing it is, in effect allowing other forms of non-traditional marriage.  The tension in the argument is whether individual rights allow alternative unions to be labeled as marriage or whether the state can be in charge of imposing a definition for marriage.  

In our case, let's define the state as the United States, in that there are democratically elected executive and legislative branches.  Coming back to the question, we ask to what degree can the legislative branch impose restrictions on individuals and enable the executive branch to enforce those restrictions.

Americans have an ingrained sense of individual liberty.  The rights of the individual are paramount.  To what extent, then, should and individual have rights?  Should the state act as a paternalistic figure and subjugate its citizens to the rules of some majority, or do individuals have rights that are unalienable despite the will of the majority?

Robert Nozik famously said that individuals have rights insofar as their rights do not violate upon the rights of others.  In the clearest case, we can agree that individuals have a right to not be murdered.  This right does not restrict the rights of others not to be murdered; conversely, if it were the case that individuals had the right to murder, the society would soon go down the path of disintegration. 

Examining the case of marriage, it is not clear why same sex or polygamous marriages between individuals who willingly partake in these unions violate the right of others.  One cannot reasonable argue that he has the right to live in a society where marriage is the union of a man and a woman as this "right is clearly restrictive of others rights.  

Looking beyond marriage, and if we accept the notion that individuals have rights insofar as their rights do not violate the rights of others, there are many other major implications.  These implications are as base as the right to education, therefore taxation to support education, to the right to have secure borders, therefore the existence of a military.  In each case, individual liberties of those who assert these rights should be assessed against the violation of rights of others who may have dissimilar interests.  The answers are not clear cut, and require intense and deep debate.

So, how does one motivate ongoing social discourse to examine these issues and is our existing political infrastructure sufficiently geared to allow this discourse between citizens in an open way?  One may argue that a free press and media are there to enable this discourse; however, with the recent proliferation of commentators and diminishing of strong journalistic standards, the nation is at the mercy of those who speak the loudest and have the best access to communication channels. 

The voice of the citizen engaged in a civil discourse is lost; the question is, how we can get it back.

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