Most parents give their young children limits, because young children simply don’t know any better — “Only two cookies, or you’ll get a tummy ache.” As teenagers, we’re given rules, because teenagers often lack good judgment — “Be home by 11 o’clock…sharp!” But once we reach adulthood, it’s assumed that we finally know better AND use good judgement. And so, we’re FREE from the parental limits and rules of our youth. Instead, we now have laws to govern our behavior. But why? If we finally know better and use good judgement, why do we need laws? Because, my fine fellow adults, we too often lack responsibility.
Responsibility can be defined as “a moral obligation to behave correctly.” And friends, we just ain’t got it. At least a lot of us don’t. Or, rather, enough of us don’t that the powers that be, from big government down to the corner cafe, are forced to impose laws — for our own good and the good of others. SPEED LIMIT 20 IN SCHOOL ZONE Really? NO shirt, NO shoes, NO service Huh? Do we really need to be told not to speed past a school? Yep. And do we really need to be reminded to put on a shirt before we enter a restaurant? You betcha. Employees MUST wash their hands Seriously?? Yes, seriously. We, as a society, are THAT irresponsible. We simply lack the “moral obligation to behave correctly.”
Think about it. Every law, from big laws about violent crime or insider trading, to petty ones about jaywalking or dogs on leashes, every law is a direct result of someone (and let’s be honest…lots of someones) making a selfish choice. “This works for me, so I’m just gonna do it.” And the more ridiculous the law, the more ridiculous the behavior that preceded it.
“”Bug off! It’s a free country!” YES, it is! A free COUNTRY.
People have no trouble remembering we’re free, but some seem to ignore the fact we’re also a country — a collection of people who have chosen either to come here or to stay here because of the very freedom we cherish. And because we are a country, a collection, a group of people, none of us operates in a vacuum. We have neighbors, figuratively if not literally. We have fellow Americans who want and deserve the same life, liberty and pursuit of happiness we want. Which means living in our “free country” comes with a price — responsibility.
We cannot simply live self-centered lives, doing whatever we choose “in the name of freedom,” if what we are doing imposes on another’s ability to happily, safely and responsibly do as they choose. To paraphrase the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, You have the right to swing your fist, but the responsibility not to bloody someone’s nose.
“Rightful liberty is,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “unobstructed action according to our will (freedom) within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others (responsibility).”
Much has been made these past several years about threats to our civil liberties. This is nothing new. Americans have been fighting to maintain our freedom since the day our founders won it. And the thought of losing our personal freedom frightens us terribly, as well it should. But let us remember to devote that same fight and fervor to contemplating the responsibility that comes with our freedom. We simply can’t have one without the other. Because freedom means choice, choice leads to action, and action brings responsibility. Like it or not, responsibility will always follow freedom.
So, as Chet asked in today’s BBTL book entry, How are you bookending freedom and responsibility in your life? Are you fighting? What are you fighting for?