One sign of a healthy society is that the rights and responsibilities of people are entirely connected. My freedom should be limited by my not having too much impact on your freedom. Your safety should be in part my responsibility. When this goes wrong, people suffer and we cease to have a meaningful social contract with each other.
American gun law is a case in point. The right to own guns has, for far too long, trumped the right of people to be safe. It’s especially hideous that children being safe in school is considered a less important right than that gun owners be free from responsibilities.
In the UK, we’re increasingly seeing things like the right to affordable food and housing being less important than the rights of a relative few people to underpay workers or make a massive profit from rent.
While covid restrictions have been awful to deal with, I do not believe that my personal freedoms are more important than other people not dying. I also recognise that my not catching a horrible illness, not enduring being sick, or facing the risk of death or long term health problems also involves other people upholding those restrictions. By collectively limiting our freedoms over the last year we have been able to keep each other safer. And again, there are issues around the ‘rights’ of certain businesses to keep making profits from unsafe workspaces at a cost to everyone’s health.
All too often we’re persuaded that we can curtail other people’s freedoms while leaving our own unharmed. The brexit fiasco has been an unpleasant illustration of this. The desire to restrict freedom of movement for other people has of course restricted freedom of movement for UK citizens. When we don’t see our rights and responsibilities as interconnected, it is much easier to persuade us that someone else can have their rights removed without it costing us anything. The suggestion that we step away from human rights laws so that the government can punish specific people it doesn’t like should, surely invite the question of which freedoms the rest of us are prepared to lose.
Because once someone isn’t entitled to a fair trial, none of us can be sure that we are. Once someone isn’t entitled to privacy, none of us are. Once the police have a free pass on committing crimes in certain contexts, none of us can be confident of being dealt with fairly.
Ask what your freedoms cost other people and not just the people around you, but also people in other countries, and the environment and other living beings. Ask what your responsibilities uphold – whether they are part of a social contract that tries to balance everyone’s interests, or whether you are being exploited for someone else’s unfair advantage.