A friend of mine recently sent me this in an email. We hear lots these days about how people deserve a right to free healthcare or a right to be free from burdensome taxes (oh wait, we don’t hear that, actually). Personally, I am a believer in only negative rights (those which exist in us for the simple fact we are human; God-given if you will) and I believe positive rights (those which have to be given, usually by the government, before they are taken away) should not be considered rights. No matter, with rights always come responsibilities, which we don’t often hear about. This column gives a brief nod to that, and I thought I would include the parts I [mostly] agree with just so you can get the gist of the rights-responsibility pairing that should be going on more often.
You hear a lot about “rights” in America. You have a right to an attorney. You have a right to remain silent. You have a right to free speech, a right to “keep and bear arms,” a right to “due process,” and a right to have “equal protection under the law.”
Cruel and unusual punishment? Unreasonable search and seizure? Being tried twice for the same crime? Those would be violations of your rights. We’re told that we have a right to privacy, a right to have an education, and a right to worship as we choose.
We hear about individual rights, civil rights, human rights, and constitutional rights. Stop somebody from doing something he wants to do and as likely as not, he’ll tell you, “I have a right to do that and you have no right to stop me. After all, it’s a free country and I have my rights!”
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Responsibilities are the flip side of rights. In fact, the only reason we have rights at all is because there are people who fulfill their responsibilities. Yet, if you ask people what their responsibilities as Americans are, you’ll usually get vacant expressions and maybe a mumbled statement about jury duty or paying taxes.
With that in mind, here are a few basic responsibilities that you, I, and all of us have as Americans.
1) It’s your responsibility to pay your own way. Nobody owes you a living and that includes other taxpayers. You have a responsibility to pay your own bills and not be a leech. That means, over the course of your lifetime, paying as much in taxes as you take out in services and direct payments from the government. If, by some horrible set of circumstances you feel compelled to go on the dole, you should at least be ashamed to take hand-outs from your fellow citizens.
2) It’s your responsibility to take care of your children. If you have kids, you have a duty to take care of them. That means paying money to feed, clothe, and house them. It means being a part of their life and doing your best to raise them, teach them right from wrong, and help them have a better life than you’ve had. This seems to be so simple that it’s practically instinctive to most people, but apparently, a lot of people don’t get it.
3) It’s your responsibility to look out for future generations of Americans. Whether you think of America as “the land of opportunity, “a shining city on a hill,” “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” or the “last, best hope of mankind,” we all have a duty to preserve what’s great about this nation so that future generations of Americans can experience it just as we have. How careless, how irresponsible, how unforgivable it would be if our children and our children’s children have to grow up in an America that is no longer extraordinary.
4) You have a responsibility to be an informed voter. In recent years there has been a big push to get all Americans to vote. That’s sort of like giving everyone a gun and encouraging them to immediately squeeze off a few rounds. If they don’t know anything about what they’re doing, they’re as likely to hurt themselves or someone else as they are to do good. The same goes for voting. Not everyone has to be a political junky, but it would be nice if people took the time to become well-informed about the ins-and-outs of the basic political issues we have to deal with in this country instead of voting on who has the best attack ads. Being an informed voter is a responsibility. Being an uninformed voter is flipping a coin – heads, America wins and tails, it loses.
5) You have a responsibility to support and defend the Constitution. The Constitution is the “set of rules” that we go by as a people and most of the “rights” are guaranteed by the Constitution. Yet, the Constitution is under daily attack in this country by activists and politicians who feel the ends justify the means along with judges who claim to believe in a “living Constitution,” which is functionally no different than not having a Constitution at all. You may not win every fight to adhere to the Constitution, but it’s a battle worth fighting because no document does more to safeguard the rights of all Americans.
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7) You have a responsibility to be a good person. As Samuel Adams noted way back in 1779,
A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.
Honesty, honor, godliness, industry, respect for the law, morality, and truthfulness are the wheels on which our entire republic rides. If the American people are no damn good, then no matter how well the Constitution is written, how well we’re governed, or how much good fortune comes our way, we are doomed as a nation.
– John Hawkins