Column: The price of liberty

Tim Eggerding

Tim Eggerding

By David Johnson

A few months ago, on a late night trip to Chicago, I was driving down an empty, well-lit road at what I believe was a very safe speed. An officer of the Champaign Police Department disagreed and began his monologue by explaining to me that he pulled me over for my own safety. At the time I wasn’t so concerned about his choice of words; I paid my idiot tax and signed up for traffic school.

But then I got to thinking: ignoring the fact that most speed limits are probably a good idea, this law enforcement agent viewed his role, as a government representative, to protect me from myself. Is that why government, and ergo, laws, exist? This perception of government’s mandate seems to be widespread, as courts have ruled in favor of huge payments from tobacco companies, and similar rulings against fast food aren’t far off. It would seem that the law now considers people with lung cancer and morbid obesity as completely unable to control their consumption habits. Large settlements and damage awards signify a movement within our legal system to absolve individuals of responsibility for their own freely chosen actions. The sympathetic juries awarding these sums to self-proclaimed victims are in effect curtailing the liberty we enjoy in our society; as time progresses, we bear less responsibility for our actions and more responsibility for the misfortunes of others.

Most people would agree that government exists to protect the people and, perhaps more specifically, to protect the rights of every individual. This requires a definition of rights – a highly contentious task. However, the most defensible definition of individual rights is that which we have inherently but can be taken away by others. Thomas Jefferson worded this very well as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For if “rights” are defined to include such things as material goods or services – right to a free meal, or to free health care – they necessitate the sacrifice of certain rights of others. These others lose, at a minimum, their right to ownership and use of their time and property, and therefore, liberty which government will have to confiscate to satisfy another’s rights. In this scenario, some people’s rights are protected more than others.

If government is to protect an individual’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, then government should protect his ability to determine his destiny. An individual has a right to his or her own life, including a right to ruin it to his heart’s content. Following this logic, when individuals are prosecuted for committing victimless crimes (or, crimes wherein the victim is also the perpetrator), the government has overstepped its bounds of protecting the rights of individuals because it is denying that person’s right to make choices, even if they are poor or socially reprehensible. The law has a mandate to intervene only when the actions of one individual threaten the rights of another.

Unless we wish to continue our descent towards living in a paternalistic state, we must think of our civil liberties consistently, rather than conveniently. If we are to be free to speak, print, assemble and travel as we please, we must accept responsibility for what we bring upon ourselves in doing so. The tendency to absolve one’s self of responsibility for unfortunate outcomes has permeated our entire system, trickling down from our elected officials making the laws to the officers enforcing them. This is also evident in our court system, wherein judges and juries have often ruled that individuals aren’t responsible for injuries they clearly brought upon themselves. When Benjamin Franklin said that those who “give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” he wasn’t merely quipping about America at war. Indeed, he clearly implied that complete liberty does not guarantee safety. If we are the land of free, then it’s time to take ownership not only of our actions, but of their consequences, as well.

David Johnson is a senior in business. His column runs Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected]