On the Responsibilities of Citizenship in a Republic

J. Blindauer, February 2008

The obligations of Citizenship are one of democracy’s most hotly contested topics.

Some people believe that living in a free society entails little to no obligations, as in society is here for me and if it gets in my way it needs to go away.  Most of us sympathize with this perspective.  This shared sympathy is the result of hundreds of years of enlightenment thinking that tells us that human beings possess natural rights that predate the bonds of society.  In our Declaration of Independence, Jefferson tells us that these rights are ‘inalienable,’ entitled to us by the ‘Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,’ and that these things are ‘self-evident.’  In saying so, he echoes 17th century English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan when Hobbes envisioned man or woman alone in the state of nature with rights to everything.  The implication of Hobbes’ doctrine of rights is that the individual is paramount and society is disposable.  The only reason an individual joins society and gives up some of these natural rights is to ensure the rest of his or her rights against misfortune and the tyranny of others.  It further follows that the moment society’s impositions (the rights it takes away) outweigh its benefits (the rights it secures), hit the reset button and refresh the tree of liberty with some blood.

The first inherent flaw in this line of thinking is the failure to recognize that human beings are social creatures by necessity.  This should be obvious to anyone from the fact that it takes two of us to reproduce.  Human beings have always existed in groups and when one lives amongst others compromises must be made.  The heuristic notion of prehistoric man or woman alone in the state of nature with unlimited rights is pure fantasy.  This is the essence of 18th century Swiss-born Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critique of Hobbes’ view of pre-society man.  To Rousseau, man or woman did not exist in the state of nature with unlimited rights; man or woman just existed.

This leads us to the second problem with the doctrine of natural rights.  Ideas such as ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ are abstractions, and being such only exist because we want them to exist.  Even a cursory review of history reveals that the Ancients did not have separate words for ‘rights’ and ‘laws.’  These ideas were not semantically separated by Western jurists until the 12th century.  The concept of rights is, in fact, a very sophisticated legal mechanism.  The logical conclusion of all of this is unmistakable.  First, your rights do not predate the social contract.  Second, your rights are not an entitlement of nature, but rather the privilege of living in a society.

So what does this mean to you and me as 21st century Americans?

It means our precious Bill of Rights is completely contingent on the health of our society.  And if we do not contribute to society, we are dooming the very rights and freedoms that we enjoy to extinction.  Abraham Lincoln said that in our republic equality “is the central idea from which all minor thoughts radiate.”  That equality doesn’t just apply to protection and opportunity under the law.  The lesson for us is that equality also applies to our responsibilities and obligations to the social contract.

Just as you will never consume more food than you physically possess; you will never have more rights or freedoms than you make the provision for by working in concert with others.  Your share of the Bill of Rights is dependent on your embracing of the unspoken ‘Bill of Obligations.’  Despite Thomas Jefferson’s ceaseless optimism in announcing natural rights, he understood that democracy’s ledger had to be balanced with civic responsibilities.  I suspect that this was part of his motivation for being such an ardent advocate of national service through the universal militia system.

So the next time you hear someone proclaim that he or she has a right not to serve in the military, or not to pay taxes, or break the law as long as it does not harm someone else, or not participate or make a contribution to this nation, it is correct to say, “Do you?”

 

      Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau 1762

                   Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes 1651