By Pat Hickey, Reno Gazette Journal, May 9, 2023
Just as there are two sides to every coin, it takes two crucial things for a democratic republic like ours to succeed. If we want a government that maintains social order and protects personal freedoms, we need civil rights enshrined in law and citizens who act responsibly to govern themselves.
Without both, we risk being broken apart as well as becoming broke. The “shining light on the hill” that was America will continue to dim if we fail to hold up both ends of the governing proposition placed before us.
The accompanying Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It spells out Americans’ rights in relation to our government. It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual — like freedom of speech, press and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the people or the states.
How to achieve those freedoms is found in the Declaration of Independence. It was meant to be the responsibility, “… of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln pointed out.
We can add all the bills of rights (laws) we want, and we have as of late.
Legally, rights have never been so extensively defined for so many: the rights of ethnic minorities, the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of single parents, the rights of sexual preferences, taxpayers, renters, etc, etc. The rights of animals and the rights of plants. It’s a list that goes on endlessly. They all look good on the paper and feel good to those who increasingly view themselves as victims without them.
How about a bill of responsibilities to go along with all those newly created rights? Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, started by Dwight Eisenhower in 1949, put forth a preamble to such a “Bill of Responsibilities” by saying, “Freedom and responsibility are mutual and inseparable; we can ensure enjoyment of the one only by exercising the other. Freedom for all of us depends on responsibility by each of us.”
Along with the ever-expanding size of government, what about the necessary notion of self-government? Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt certainly thought it was important: “… our children must learn … to face full responsibility for their actions, to make their own choices and cope with the results … the whole democratic system … depends upon it. Our system is founded on self-government, which is untenable if the individuals who make up the system are unable to govern themselves.” Civil rights author James Baldwin agreed: “… the essence of what we know as justice in civil affairs is people living up to their obligations toward one another.”
Those who disagree with me may say that in order to obtain justice we need stronger measures outlawing all the injustices in society. I’d say we need more good persons. Contemporary author Adrian Wooldridge writes in “The Aristocracy of Talent”: “Great Jewish intellectuals such as Albert Einstein made a mockery of Nazi ideas of the master race. Great black individuals such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois proved African Americans could hold their own in the corridors of intellect. Martin Luther King was such a morally compelling figure because he held out the hope of a future in which everyone would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.”
The content of a nation’s character determines its fate. No matter how powerful and all-encompassing our laws become, they are only as good as the people living under them. It’s been said that our current narrow preoccupation with rights is a moral health warning that all is not well with our society.
The hallmark of American democracy is freedom. Nevadans especially cherish the right to make their own choices. Our ability to respond, or our responsibilities, are what make us unique on planet earth. We are not merely ruled by nature’s laws (as the animal kingdom is); we govern ourselves by the rules we shape from our values — and dare I say our consciences, whether they be of a religious or humanistic origin.
As founder James Madison said, “If individuals be not influenced by moral principles, it is in vain to look for public virtue.” In that sense, the best “law” of all may still be the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Memo from the Middle” is an opinion column written by RGJ columnist Pat Hickey, a member of the Nevada Legislature from 1996 to 2016.