Personal Freedom versus Personal Responsibility

Currently, there is a national debate over health care that places personal freedom and personal responsibility in opposition to each other. The talking heads, the politicians, and the public through their representative groups’ leaders seem intent on presenting the argument as a choice between one and the other. This apparent conflict is truly not accurate.

An odd-lot made up of libertarians, tea partyists, republicans, democrats, independents, socialists, and populists objects vociferously to the recently enacted and highly controversial federal mandate that orders everyone in the US to purchase health insurance coverage by the year 2016 or face an additional tax for failing to meet the requirement of the law. This otherwise heterogeneous group of individuals use the Constitution as their weapon, trying to disarm the obligation society faces while meeting its just desire to place a safety net under every individual living in this country in the twenty-first century. As dissimilar as this group may be when each of its parts is isolated, its rallying cry, its loud objection unites them under a common denominator that labels the signed legislation unconstitutional.   

The objectors logically point to the Constitution because the revered document is the only leveler across all political divides. It is the generally respected document lending support to all who raise their voice for freedom and equality. Notwithstanding this, the years have proven the Constitution to be also a very flexible document that has lent itself across the centuries to many interpretations; even its unambiguous passages that would seem most explicit in their scope and meaning have undergone different interpretations along the span of so many years.

Unquestionably, the Constitution is today a very old document. It dates back to the time when advances in technology, in medical findings, and diagnostic testing were restricted to the application of leeches and bleedings to alleviate illness. The thinkers who drafted the document were exemplary individuals living in the eighteenth century, where life, as judged by today’s standards, was more regimented and orderly, unfolding slowly in a more homogeneous society. 

The framers of the Constitution were unable to predict that two centuries later the rise of conspicuous consumption would make it acceptable to live beyond one’s means. The Framers failed to grasp how the passing of the centuries engendered a new order of individuals more interested in pursuing hedonistic experiences than in assuming responsibility and acting appropriately. They never conceived of a Me Generation two centuries later.   

Without exception, the Framers were men of means. None was poor or indigent. They were progressive thinkers and well read men who remained abreast of the issues that threatened their newly established free experience:  insatiably powerful, despotic, repressive governments and intolerant religious institutions. The Framers took great care in protecting us against these excesses centuries later, despite our present day inclination to squander them. They were able thinkers whose primary concerns were the restriction of the power of a centralized government, the clear enumeration of inalienable rights attributed to individuals from birth, and the eradication of religious intolerance by separating religion altogether from government.

Far removed were the Framers from conceiving that more than two hundred years later municipalities would be facing the provision of health care to individuals who prefer to consume beyond their means instead of putting aside personal resources earmarked for potentially more difficult times.  Alien to them was the concept that poor, destitute, indigent individuals would overwhelm local, health delivery systems nearly three centuries later. Foreign to their intellectual abilities was the notion of complex illnesses that required intensive, chronic or routine care that could endanger the solvency of the municipalities onto which the cost of the delivery of these expensive medical procedures would be imposed.

Emphatically, the Constitution, as individuals are concerned, addresses the rights of citizens and the restrictions imposed on the powers of the federal government. The document does not address individual responsibilities nor does it address in any manner an inherent obligation individual citizens may have toward the society in which they live. Some would use this absence of explicit text to read into this void an inherent lack of obligations altogether. Others, take the opposite view. But in summary, it would seem that wielding the Constitution to determine the appropriateness of the law in question is a bit of a stretch.  Let’s face it, using the document today to base an objection to the assumption of personal responsibility over issues that arise in our present day society may seem self-servient and opportunistic.

The exercise of freedom is not libertine. Any individual’s freedom has limits. Others have rights too. Restraint is part of our liberties.  In essence, the exercise of our liberties is limited only by the rights and liberties of others. Furthermore, the respect for the rights of others is essential to the true spirit of liberty. We become libertines when we force others to defray the cost of goods or services we receive.

The exercise of liberty encompasses a tacit adherence to a code of ethics. Some would label it a moral code. As such, it is our moral obligation to foster liberty in others by enabling others to be and remain free. By imposing on others the cost for services we receive, we usurp their rights. We restrict others’ liberty by taking from them funds to pay for services that would otherwise be our personal responsibility. In simple terms, we are not being good citizens when we neglect to take care of our own needs.

It is our moral obligation as free citizens to ensure the proper and timely reimbursement of any and all expenses incurred by others while providing us with any service or care we require, especially, health care today when the cost of delivering such care is great. Certainly, those who object to the new law fail to recognize that it intends to correct a wrong that has plagued our municipalities for many years. The citizens who oppose the law on grounds of its constitutionality fail to recognize that the cost of health care, if not defrayed by private resources–savings or insurance–becomes an imposition on the rest of the communities across the nation. Their misguided objection to the exigency of payment from private resources creates two classes of citizens: the superior class and the inferior class. Clearly, any acceptance of this inequality of classes eradicates our liberty. Their classist stance conveys the message that one citizen is superior to another, for the superior citizen expects the inferior citizen to pay for the care and services the superior citizen receives with impunity.

When we go about our life without setting aside funds for potential times of need, we are assuming that others have the obligation to take care of us when our need arises. When we go years without assuming control of our later needs and obligations, we are relying on others to provide for us. When we fail to meet our financial obligations, we rely on others to pick up the slack. These are all evidence of infringements on the rights of others. We demonstrate a selfish attitude expecting others to take care of our needs. This reluctance to accept responsibility is not conducive to liberty and does not allow others to remain free. It places an unfair burden on our fellow citizens.

On these multiple current issues, the Framers were silent. They left it up to us to act according to the needs of our times with legislation that survives the legislative process and the separation of powers. The law on health care seeks to redress a collective wrong that has plagued our society equally as long as the advances in science and technology have been stressing the budget of communities across our land. 

All arguments are welcome. As always, comments and different points of view are explicitly encouraged.

About Francisco

Born in Cuba; political exile; American by choice; polyglot; father of four, grandfather of two; occupationally semi-retired; reader; writer; lover of mankind and nature; searcher of truths; hungry for wisdom; open-minded; romantic realist; critical thinker, enemy of despotism, government abuse, and inequality; believer and faithful; social liberal, fiscal conservative; in a quest to unmask the hypocrisy and the corruption enslaving overwhelming numbers of God's creatures around the world.
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