NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 4, 2013

Putting trust in government

Viewpoint
Malcolm Heim

---- — Phil Sayles recently wrote a persuasive piece on natural rights and the primacy of the individual in America. But being persuasive doesn’t mean being right. We must be careful of logic that is specious due to unfounded assumptions and sweeping generalizations. Let’s examine his argument and its foundation on the beliefs of John Locke.

Locke, a philosopher of 17th century enlightenment, formulated the existence of absolute natural law and a social contract in which individuals agree to surrender certain rights in order to guarantee others.

We’re already on thin ice. Which rights are natural? Which are kept and which are forsaken? Who defines those rights? Locke advocated using reason to find truth rather than blind adherence to authority and tradition, a concept Mr. Sayles should have considered. He sets up 18th century constitutional thought as absolute authority, ignoring intervening fundamental changes in American society. The Constitution is an evolving document, not an immutable stone tablet.

Yes, men should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But there are circumstances when we expand or contract these rights. We send people off to war, depriving them of life. We intern people for their nationality, depriving them of liberty. Slave-holders found happiness in keeping people in bondage, defending it as natural law. There is too much at stake for us to march unthinkingly to the drumbeat of nebulous natural law and social contract.

I defend the sanctity of the individual, but I do not worship it. It mutates into the tyranny of the individual holding the general good of the people hostage.

Let us use reason to determine if what once was valid still is. The Second Amendment equates the people with a well-regulated militia. Notwithstanding Supreme Court rulings or National Rifle Association obsessions, I see this right as being met in our military and National Guards as well-regulated militias. The possession of firearms is an earned privilege, not a natural right. To say that “people, not guns, kill people” is a clever turn of phrase that serves only to pooh-pooh the problem and sidestep its complexities.

Now let’s look at the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of privacy vis-à-vis the National Defense Authorization Act. The world is a far different place than it was two centuries ago. Militant groups wage war on this nation without declaration and hide behind the shield of national sovereignty. Every war America has ever fought precipitated some suspension of constitutional rights. But when the threat ended, so did the suspension. If the Constitution needs to be reinterpreted for national security, so be it. I trust my government to right the listing ship of state when the time comes.

I’m so tired of the bromide about the 47 percenters who think they’re due “collective entitlement.” What does that mean? Where are these people? What about the wealthiest 2 percenters who think they are entitled to avoid fair taxation, to push their moneyed agenda, to break laws with impunity? Where are the criminal indictments against the bankers who caused the economic crisis when the housing bubble burst in 2007? Let me paraphrase Mr. Sayles, replacing his word, success, with mine in italics: Where is the “connection of failure with personal responsibility” on the part of these bankers?

Mr. Sayles bemoans the “role of government as the enabler of prosperity.” Ideally, this role should be played by the captains of industry. Historically, they fail miserably and government intervention succeeds as the missing catalyst for good.

Our national transportation infrastructure is crumbling. Our educational system is in disarray. Given its dismal record of self-regulation, the free market needs the government to save it from itself. Obama enumerated these concerns in his inauguration. I approve his message.

The taming of our national debt is a complex issue that defies treatment in a newspaper column. However, it is not the sole fault of Democrats or Republicans, but of both. The debt has been with us since George Washington took office.

Mr. Sayles attacks the “trendy” European model of socialist mediocrity. He is again regurgitating predigested pap. The leading index on life quality (Economist Intelligence Units) ranks the U.S. 13th. Ten of the 12 nations ahead of us are European. Apparently, Europeans do not mind government participation in their lives. The have and have-not gap is narrower. They enjoy more leisure time. They don’t have to choose between food and health care. They live longer. The infant mortality rate is lower. And their educational system is superior. If that’s mediocrity, I’ll take two.

Mr. Sayles claims that Obama is “opposed to ... individual liberty and rights to property.” That is irresponsible at best and demagogic at worst. It is, in the vernacular, hogwash.

Mr. Sayles concluded with a warning: We follow Obama at our own peril. In counterpoint, the only peril we face is the unchallenged acceptance of shallow reasoning and personal bias disguised as fact.

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Malcolm Hein lives in Newburyport.