Sort by

Putting the Common Good Above Individual Rights

David Callahan

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, individual rights have gone too far when it comes to guns.

An emphatic belief in individual rights is one of the greatest strengths of America, and also its greatest flaw. 

In any rational society, my neighbor shouldn't be able to keep a small arsenal of high-powered automatic weapons sitting around the house. And certainly not if she is living with her disturbed son. That is a threat to public safety, as we learned horribly on Friday. 

But if it seems obvious to some of us, in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, that individual rights have gone too far when it comes to guns, this reality is not yet a starting point for public policy.

We'll hear a lot in coming weeks about assault rifles, background checks, waiting periods, magazine clip size, and so on. Yet to really win the argument for stronger gun control, we need to question the underlying belief that individual freedom is more important than the common good. 

That's a heavy lift, because it collides with individualist tenets embraced across the ideological spectrum. 

Both the left and the right are obsessed with individual rights, albeit different such rights. The left strongly defends personal freedom in the social and civil spheres — for instance, when it comes to sexuality or due process — while the right is obsessed with freedom in the economic sphere, and also gun rights. 

Neither the left nor right likes to acknowledge the downsides of the individual rights that their side cares about. The left doesn't like to acknowledge that when you let people do whatever they want in the social sphere, you can end up with more irresponsible behavior that costs all of society — for example, when promiscuous men walk away from the children they have fathered. Meanwhile, the right doesn't like to acknowledge the obvious ways in which unfettered capitalism is destructive of, well, everything or the huge carnage caused by gun rights. 

Yet I think most Americans recognize that too much freedom in any sphere is a bad thing. Most people generally support the social freedoms won since the 1960s, but also want more emphasis on personal responsibility. And most people believe in economic freedom, but want clear checks on corporate power and a strong safety net. 

I argued in my book, The Moral Center, that progressives should align themselves more with the public, and embrace a healthy balance between freedom and responsibility in all spheres. 

Among other things, a coherent and consistent narrative about the balance between freedom and responsibilty would help progressives advance gun control. Americans near to hear, again and again, that their own desires can't trump the common good. No, you can't keep an arsenal in your house because you like taking your assault rifle to the gun range or worry about crime. Just like, no, men can't walk away from their children and, no, you can't pay your workers poverty-level wages. And, more broadly, we Americans can't spew as much carbon dioxide into the world as we want. 

Freedom is great, but it has to come with limits. It's that simple.