Sunday, October 31, 2010

Governmental TOLERANCE as Core Principle of American Democracy - "Harm" Principle; Right to be "Let Alone"

LAST TIME:  Governmental TOLERANCE of Individual Autonomy as Core Principle of American Democracy

Conceptually, the idea of governmental tolerance is easy - when it comes to matters of individual free-will causing no harm to others, government is not required to do anything; rather, it must simply stay out of the way and do nothing at all. The mid-nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill aptly articulated the concept with his “harm principle”: “The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” A century and a half earlier, John Locke, the great thinker of the European Enlightenment who was probably the most influential source of revolutionary American political thought (Thomas Jefferson, for example, considered Locke “[one of the three] greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception”), wrote: The care … of every man’s soul belongs unto himself, and is to be left unto himself.” To Locke, government acts properly in protecting individuals from fraudulent or physical harm; but acts improperly when it paternalistically regulates private choice. It must, in other words, tolerate individual free will.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized this principle (albeit too infrequently). As Justice Louis Brandeis intoned in acknowledging the concept in a 1928 case: “The makers of our Constitution … conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation.” Or, as a majority of the Supreme Court commented in 1943 in striking down a West Virginia law requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what is orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” And, in one of its finest moments, in a 2003 case striking down a Texas law punishing consenting adults for engaging in certain sexual behavior within their own homes,, the Supreme Court majority explained: “Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.”

To Williams, Paine, Stanton, Du Bois and Deloria too, a tolerant government does not interfere – thereby allowing diverse viewpoints and practices the necessary breathing space they require in a free pluralistic society. Roger Williams believed government should stay separate from – that it should tolerate - all religious practices. Thomas Paine was committed to the common sense principle that government must not abridge – that it must tolerate – the individual rights of all people. Elizabeth Cady Stanton demanded that government replace a legal regime imposing separate, inferior status on women with one that recognizes – that tolerates - the equal legal status of women. W.E.B. Du Bois tirelessly challenged government to repudiate laws and practices that institutionalized white supremacist principles and thereby to accept – to tolerate – black people as equals under the law. And Vine Deloria Jr. spent his lifetime exposing the practices of a U.S. government that systematically reneged on its solemn promises to leave alone – to tolerate – Indian tribes with their native lands and traditions, and pointed the way forward for how that government should make amends for its egregious breaches of faith. 

NEXT TIME:  What governmental tolerance is not