Charlie Leonard: Inalienable Rights
A liberal friend of mine with whom I regularly duel over political issues sent me a note last month cheering the Supreme Court decision that said Congress can compel every one of us to buy a private product (in this case, health insurance) or face a federal fine.
Last week, he sent me another message, this time expressing his outrage with a news report that said New York City police officers stop more than 1,800 people per day and put them through a full pat-down search.
According to the story he sent me, more than nine in 10 of the people frisked by the police were innocent of any crime or offense, and a disproportionate number of the individuals were black or Hispanic.
Clearly, my liberal friend had no objection to granting the government extraordinary power over our lives when it suited his personal politics but was genuinely surprised and alarmed when he then saw the same government acting in ways he found offensive.
For those of us who cherish liberty and individual freedom, however, there was no mistaking the heavy hand of government in both the health care law and the unreasonable (and unconstitutional) searches being conducted in the name of law enforcement and national security.
It’s not about whether the ideas of expanding health insurance or fighting terrorism are good or bad, as we almost always tend to oversimplify. Both, of course, are worthy goals.
Throughout most of our history, however, we also have held to certain beliefs and constitutional principles that clearly set us apart from other societies in that we were never a country that believed the ends justify the means. And the means that most troubled the writers of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the notion of a big and powerful government that could, if not held in check, trample the rights of individuals.
In fairness, I also want to acknowledge that I don’t believe liberals have a monopoly over this kind of flawed reasoning and lack of appreciation for our constitutional rights and protections. I also have a few friends on the right who say they want a less intrusive, less activist government while at the same time calling for Congress and the states to pass laws that would deny homosexual couples the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals. Personally, I can’t imagine how government could be more intrusive.
The most common rationale today for failing to limit the size and scope of government is the notion that there is something “super-democratic” at work when a majority of the population supports a particular idea or policy.
If you are not familiar with this concept, you don’t have to travel to Washington, D.C., to hear the politicians who routinely try to bribe a majority of voters with the resources they say can be coerced from a smaller and smaller minority. The game is being played with equal skill in state capitols and city halls across the country.
Our founding fathers were so deeply concerned about what John Adams called the potential for “a tyranny of the majority” that the drafters of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights made it abundantly clear that their first priorities were the rights of individuals – rather than the powers of the government or the will of the majority.
Yet most people still fail to see that a government that abuses its powers to provide health care is no more benevolent or constitutional than a government that would violate the privacy of thousands of law-abiding citizens in the name of trying to find a handful of predators. Both are equally dangerous and hostile to our founding principles.
I know some will say the recent Supreme Court ruling on the health care law is proof that the government did not abuse its powers. Actually, the court found plenty wrong with the law, including the notion that Congress can force us to buy something or force every state in the country to add millions to the Medicaid rolls. What the court fundamentally upheld was Congress’ ability to impose fines so long as they look like a tax.
But the court decision, like the congressional vote for the health care law itself, was approved by the narrowest of majorities – and over the objections of a fiercely determined minority. Consequently, the only thing certain about this issue at this point is that it’s far from settled – and, more important, it’s no longer just about health care.
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