The American Declaration of Independence asserts that all people should have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. One can infer from this that the Founders expected that the American Government would pass legislation, develop policy, and implement programs that promote the broadest possible attainment of these rights by all people.
Recently, a question has been raised whether one person’s right to the “pursuit of happiness” is unlimited, and whether this right takes precedence over the American Government’s obligation to promote the “right to life” of other people who cannot do this for themselves. In other words, does one person’s right trump the American Government’s obligation to help assure the rights of many persons? The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a primary example of how the American Government can promote the “right to life” in the broadest possible way for American citizens. Should one citizen be expected to forgo some “pursuit of happiness” by being required to pay taxes so that the American Government can provide health insurance for other citizens?
This issue of personal versus community rights is at the crux of many current dilemmas in American society. Does the “I” take precedence over the “We”? (See my earlier commentary at: http://www.behavioral.net/blogs/ron-manderscheid/basic-thoughts-about-social-justice-i-and-mine-vs-we-and-ours ). There are many fundamental issues we need to consider.
Several important principles ought to guide us as we pursue this topic:
- All personal rights are limited. This necessitates balance among the rights of different citizens.
- One right does not take precedence over another right. This necessitates balance among different rights.
- It is the appropriate role of the American Government to achieve the necessary balance in the exercise of these personal rights.
From these principles, one can discern the boundaries of personal rights. One’s right to the “pursuit of happiness” cannnot deprive another person or other members of a community of the reasonable exercise of the “right to life”.
These limits are embodied in the preamble to the American Constitution, which establishes the United States of America, and which seeks to “promote the general welfare”. A moment’s reflection will assure you that the general welfare cannot be achieved unless personal rights are limited and balanced.
So, what would we say to the citizen who wants to assert an unlimited right to “the pursuit of happiness”? I think that we would say: It seems clear that if you and all citizens assert this right, then none of you will actually be able to enjoy it because each will impede the other. That is why the American Government was formed to foster balance among citizens and among rights.
Further, if the American Government is to “promote the general welfare”, then it must undertake initiatives such as the ACA, which is specifically designed for this purpose, and which seeks to balance the “right to life” among all citizens.