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When Rights Collide

In a free society, citizens have freedoms or “rights”. In a truly free society, every citizen has the right to do whatever he/she pleases, without infringing on the rights of others. This is where government comes in. At its heart, the only purpose of government in a free society is to determine where the boundaries lie between the rights of one citizen and the rights of another.

In the preamble to the United States constitution, the writers used phrases like “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” to talk about the purpose of government. All of these are truly covered by insuring that the rights of all are protected.

Let me give you some examples to illustrate this principle. I’ll start with the simplest example and work up to a harder one.

Example 1:

In our free society, I have the right to own the biggest television that I want to have. Best Buy has a bunch of big televisions. I should be able to go and pick one up and carry it out of the store, since I have the right to a big television. Because Best Buy has certain property rights, I can’t go in and take the television that I want without purchasing it from them at an agreed upon price.

Some would argue that Best Buy, as a business entity, doesn’t really have rights. This argument may hold true for some rights, but the simple fact is that a business is really a group of individuals that have agreed to combine their resources in some venture. In the case of property rights, since this group of individuals have used their property to purchase other property, they have the right to retain that property until they choose to sell it. I know this seems really simplistic and obvious, but bear with me. I’m laying a foundation for later.

In a very real sense, property rights cover all sorts of things, such as my seat at the movie theater. While I didn’t purchase my seat, I purchased the right to have a seat for a specific period of time. If I go in and pick a seat that you are already sitting in, I can’t have that particular seat because your property rights allow you to keep it. There is an old saying that “possession is 9/10ths of the law”. In the sense of true ownership of property, this is completely false. But in the case of the disputed theater seat, it’s very applicable.

Example 2:

This one gets just a little more complicated. You have the right, in this country, to consume alcoholic beverages. You also have the right to drive an automobile. The government, however, has passed laws that say you can’t drive after consuming a certain amount of alcohol, which is defined as being “under the influence”. There are also laws that prohibit driving without first passing a government test to show that you know how to safely operate a vehicle and obtaining a license from the government. Both of these laws exist to prevent you from taking away my rights. Your right to operate a vehicle does not exceed my right to be safe on the highways and streets. The DUI laws also protect other people’s property rights in a more indirect sense. Over 30 years ago, I was a consumer of alcohol. I decided that I needed to quit after drinking far too much and then driving myself home. Yes, I broke the law. I was wrong! If I had not managed to get across the very narrow bridge over Ponchatoula Creek on my way home, and if I had survived the fall into the creekbed, the cost of my medical care and the cost of replacing my vehicle would have been covered by my insurance companies. This outlay of money by these companies would mean that they had to get the money from somewhere. Guess where they would have gotten it? That’s right, they would have increased premiums, which means that YOU would have involuntarily lost some of your property to pay for my stupidity. A lot of people don’t like seatbelt laws, but they exist for the same property rights reasons. The seatbelt not only protects me in the case of an accident, but it also protects you from having to pay for my care if I am more severely injured because I didn’t take advantage of the safety device.

Example 3:

Let’s say you give me a call and invite me to go get some dinner with you. You say that you will pick me up and bring me home. The meal is dutch treat. Sounds like a fun evening. You enjoy partaking in an adult beverage with your meal, but as I told you in Example 2, I choose not to do that. During the meal you have a couple of drinks. Now, you like having the latest and greatest technology all the time, so you went down to Best Buy and purchased (see Example 1) this new-fangled handy-dandy personal blood alcohol tester. According to your cool little device, you are .001% below the legal limit, so you figure you’re ok to drive home. I, however, choose not to ride with you and I arrange for another way home. You aren’t happy with me because I’m unilaterally changing our plans, but I haven’t really caused you any harm. I haven’t prevented you from drinking what you want to. I’m not preventing you from driving yourself home. Since you are within your legal rights, I couldn’t really stop you even if I wanted to. I’m simply choosing not to participate with you in your choice to drive home.

Example 4:

In the 60s, we had this “free love” or “sexual revolution” movement in the United States. The idea was that we should be able to have sex with anyone that pleases us. That sounds really great, but what happens when what I want crosses over with what someone else doesn’t want? The government steps in and they call that rape. I CAN have sex with any CONSENTING ADULT that pleases me. My rights don’t eliminate someone else’s rights.

Example 5:

This is the one that is going to get me in trouble with a lot of people. Just reading it as written, probably 99% of people will agree with me. It’s very similar to example 3, but brings one more element into play. With current political debate on a topic that closely parallels this, some will have big problems with my application here.

This time we will pretend that I own a construction company. Pretend, because I don’t! The local abortion clinic decides that they need to remodel and expand their building and they contact me about doing the work. I tell them that because I have strong religious convictions in opposition to what they do in their building, I will not put in a bid for their project and am not interested in doing the work. Because of my refusal, they hire another contractor who does the work for them. The clinic has the legal right to get their building done and they do. I have the right to make choices based on my religious convictions and I do.

When the building work is complete, they decide to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony to show off their new space. They contact event planners for getting out the word about the event, florists for decorations, caterers for food, even ministers for an opening prayer for the ceremony. Some of the people that they contact decline to participate based on their strongly held religious convictions.

Others have no problem with the clinic’s business model and are happy to have their business.

The new building gets opened. Those involved get to enjoy a nice party. No one was denied their rights. Everybody is happy, right?

In summary, there are constant collisions between the rights of individuals in a free society. The key to keeping the society free is to make sure that everyone’s rights are respected as much as possible. My rights don’t eliminate your rights, just as your rights don’t eliminate mine.
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