When I was raised, I was taught that there are only two limitations to my freedom. The first boundary condition is defined by the limits of my own aspirations and/or abilities–the limits I placed on myself. The second boundary condition is defined as when the exercise of my rights interferes with the rights of another person–the limits placed on me by the society in which I live. One of the roles of government is to establish the laws, regulations and enforcement mechanisms to manage the gray and fuzziness of this second boundary condition.
This distinction has served me well. For example, it is this understanding that allows me to be comfortable with laws prohibiting second hand smoke. You may or may not have a right to smoke, but you do not have a right to pollute the air that people other than yourself will breath. It is this understanding that allows me to be comfortable with gay marriage. Whatever my personal opinion of gay marriage may be, gays who choose to marry are exercising their freedom in a way that does not impose upon or restrict the rights of any one else.
I think that these boundary conditions still hold true. Unfortunately, distinguishing when the practice of my rights begins to interfere with the rights of others is becoming increasingly complex, and thus less useful as our world grows more and more interdependent [see my Good Citizenship post to understand what I mean by “interdependence.”]
Our system of government is highly interdependent, and our free market system of commerce is highly interdependent. In some cases government is driving greater interdependence, in other cases, capitalism and the free market is driving greater interdependence. Air travel, for example, is a highly interdependent process. In fact, when flying, your very life depends on someone you don’t even know doing their job. Every system of government–especially ours–relies on interdependence in order to function.
The market is also driving us toward greater interdependence. For example, the Great Recession gave us an object lesson in the interdependence of the Finance industry. Most forms of insurance are founded on interdependence. In our system of healthcare, for example, the medical insurance rates you pay are not just a function of your health alone, but are to a greater extent a function of the health of all of the other parties in your insurance group. The same is true in car insurance, home insurance, and just about every kind of insurance that you can imagine. Here’s an even scarier thought for you. You will also find that the quality of life and economic well being that your children enjoy in their future will be affected as much by the education all of the other children receive as it will be by your children’s education alone.
As a result, where I would otherwise not care, for example, on how nutritiously you eat, or how disciplined you are about exercise, or how careful you are about your lifestyle decisions, I do care now because your poor diet, your lack of exercise, your dangerous lifestyle decisions now affect my medical insurance rates.
I still subscribe to the belief that my rights are limited only by my own abilities and aspirations, and by when they begin to interfere with the rights of others. That hasn’t changed. The thing that is changing is that the boundaries of when the exercise of our individual rights begins to interfere with those of others is getting tighter, grayer, and fuzzier in our increasingly interdependent world.