We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. -- Preamble to the Constitution of the United States (1787)
(Wednesday, February 8, 2012)
In recent decades, we as a nation have strayed further and further from the path to freedom. To protect ourselves from those scary terrorists, we've allowed warrantless wiretaps, intrusive searches at airports, indefinite detention of suspects, and even torture. To protect the endless stream of income to giant entertainment corporations, we've extended the terms of copyrights and cracked down on suspected piracy. And now, for the sake of health care reform, it looks like we may be in the position of requiring Catholic employers to support practices that conflict with their beliefs. That any of these positions is even remotely justifiable is at odds with our self-identification as the so-called "land of the free". Where did we go wrong?
The easy answer is to blame whoever is currently in power, and vote them out in the next election. This only traps us in an endless cycle. I think it may be more accurate to postulate that both major parties are utterly corrupt and share the blame for the path to insanity that we are currently following. What we need is a good alternative. I had some hopes for the so-called "Tea Party", but so far they seem to be even worse than the known evils of the Democratic-Republican Party. Libertarians make somewhat more sense than the alternatives in some ways, but in the current business environment with so much power in the hands of the super-rich, deregulating business doesn't sound like a very good idea for the rest of us (the so-called 99%). Now a new group that identifies with the 99% is beginning to organize and make their own plans. Will anything come out of that? Only time will tell.
One of the dangers with the federal government is that they've had over 200 years to figure out clever ways to get around the protections built into the Constitution. A large central government such as ours is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. The Constitution has served us reasonably well, but it may not ultimately be enough. Here are a couple of examples that illustrate its potential drawbacks.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. -- Bill of Rights, Article I
Technically you might say that health-care reform doesn't "prohibit the free exercise" of Catholicism, and you'd be right. Perhaps the law is cleverly enough written that it manages to avoid being plainly unconstitutional. But if a Catholic employer chooses to freely exercise their religion, and refuses to support a health insurance program that provides contraception, they may be penalized. It may be hard to see exactly what is wrong with supporting contraception, but the real issue is that they would be coerced into violating their own moral guidelines. Here is a case where we may need more than just the Constitution to protect freedom.
Another side of the First Amendment is the freedom of speech and the press. Recent legislation and legal action aimed at curbing so-called "piracy" of copyrighted materials may have unintentional side-effects that would drastically limit freedom of speech and press online. Conspiracy theorists might wonder if those side-effects are in fact unintentional. I think it's more likely that legislators are entirely incompetent in areas related to electronic communication. In any case, the expense and potential liability of complying with the proposed laws would likely put an end to any forums where readers can add their own comments. The chance that someone might post copyrighted material which could get the entire site shut down is too great to risk. But it must be admitted that this suppression of free speech is not explicit in the proposed law itself, only a likely consequence of the law. Is this enough to get it past the Supreme Court?
Examples such as these show that corrupt legislators can limit our freedom drastically without technically appearing to violate the Constitution. Could it be time for a new and improved Bill of Rights? We could certainly use one.