The tension between government and liberty

It’s been a while since I’ve sat in a classroom as a student. On November 7, I went to a panel discussion on “Government’s Role in Protecting Liberty” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, William S. Richardson School of Law. I felt unexpectedly nostalgic as I sat in a student chair, unfolded the desk, and squirmed in the padded chair that still manages to be uncomfortable.

The panel discussion was presented by the Federalist Society and the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. There was a brief introduction of the panelists: lawyer and International rights advocate Ms. Carole Petersen; attorney Mr. Clark Neily; attorney and ACLU representative Mr. Roger Fonseca; and Hawaii legislator Senator Sam Slom. Moderator Dean Avi Soifer set the agenda: introductory statements from each of the panelists, followed by moderator-led questions, and, time permitting, questions from the audience — with the admonition to treat all comments with respect.

Mr. Fonseca framed the discussion by defining “liberty” as the ability to do what you want as long as you don’t infringe on the rights of others, and “democracy” as the rule of the majority with respect for the rights of the majority. He said that “liberty is great but you have to draw lines.”

In 75 minutes, the knowledgeable and articulate conversation ranged from the right of gun ownership, government transparency, charges of judicial abdication, the evolution of rights, group rights (both corporations and indigenous groups), and the right to discriminate vs. affirmative action. Questions from the audience prompted conversations about natural laws vs. granted rights, indigenous rights, and the right to self-defense.

Here are some highlights from the panel discussion:

* Government as protector or oppressor? Early on, differing views of government emerged. Senator Slom accused our government of failing to protect our liberties and exempting itself from its own laws. Mr. Fonseca mildly censured our government for only “reluctantly” protecting and providing liberties. Mr. Neily declared that “government is capable of appalling abuses of civil rights” and criticized judicial abdication. Ms. Petersen asserted that government protects our rights and that in theU.S. we take government for granted.

* What are rights? Mr. Neily claimed that there is a danger in trying to label rights as “social” or “civil” or “political” – it can be a source of oppression. Mr. Fonseca suggested that “rights evolve over time.” Ms. Petersen took it a step further and asserted that government should provide “a basic sense of human dignity” (she supports tax increases toward that goal). Senator Slom asserted that we have natural rights, rather than rights granted by our government. Dean Soifer asked about the right to discriminate, prompting the general agreement that government should enforce laws against discrimination in public life, but there is a fine line when it comes to private life. Two related issues were raised, with no time for further debate: What is the distinction between a “policy” and a “right” in theU.S. (Social Security and Medicare are policies, not rights), mentioned by Ms. Petersen; and whether rights are universal or culturally relative.

* Rights of individuals vs. groups. Everyone agreed that corporations and groups do have rights, whether as “federally recognized entities” or because, as Mr. Neily said, “the people who form the corporations have rights.” Mr. Fonseca expressed a need for limits on group rights, while Ms. Petersen brought up the issue of transparency in corporations, groups, and unions. During further discussion, Ms. Petersen mentioned tribal land rights in Nicaragua, while Senator Slom criticized the Akaka Bill (Hawaiian sovereignty) as racist and separatist. Mr. Fonseca stated his support of affirmative action for groups that have been historically discriminated against.

* What are our gun rights? Senator Slom adamantly supported gun rights, mentioningHawaii’s recent “Castle Law” that allows for self-defense against intruders in your home. Mr. Fonseca argued that limitations on weapons can be justified, and Ms. Petersen repeatedly called for reasonable limits on gun ownership. Mr. Neily defended the right to own guns, revealed that government does not have an obligation to protect us, and stated that nobody knows how many lives have been saved by guns.

Two issues were not covered, but I think they are worth mentioning: whether the size of government is a factor in government efficiency/abuses; and whether individuals have the right to endanger themselves (an issue of government protecting us from ourselves).

It was a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion. Thank you for this opportunity to appreciate how much government does for us – while questioning whether we should do more for ourselves.

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