What Properly Belongs as Global, National, or State Level Decisions – The Balance is Not Easy
The Traditional Answers
The standard answer for years, to the question of at what level of government should laws be passed, and rules made, has been at the lowest level possible. The underwriting principle is that such government is more likely to be close to the people and more subject to their desires.
Sounds right, and a case could be made that this a good starting point for any such discussion. But the reality demonstrates this is often not the best solution. The key point at play is how shall we define what are basic human rights. Not easy stuff to address, but getting it right is worth the effort – and the pain.
What’s Wrong with Traditional Answers?
The problem lies in that core issue of essential human rights vs societal norms and preferences. For example, there was a time (not that long ago – and still true in some corners) that society as a whole thought interracial marriage was wrong. A lot of people felt that way and so laws were past. Same for a whole host of ways we treated gays. And don’t get me started on women – we will be here forever going over those examples.
Societies certainly have a natural authority to set rules and norms by which they operate and within which conduct is expected to live. But too often that logical state translates into laws and social norms that force others to live their lives by criteria they find completely wrong, but society insists they do so. It does not take much knowledge or understanding to recognize that society can certainly get it wrong. Slavery was preached as God’s will from pulpits for generations. We need a minimum amount of humility and a workable process to engage each other usefully at several levels.
Two basic issues: Practicality and Universal Human Rights
Let’s examine factors that could help us figure all this out, were we so inclined to do so.
One of these is practicality. This is the rock upon so much conservative and reactionary politics crashes. Some things simply do not make sense being done locally. An excellent case in point is gun control (and the lack of it). The city of Chicago has a terrible murder rate and has for some time. Almost all of that involves weapons, usually small arms. Chicago has tough gun laws, and the state of Illinois is pretty rigorous about this topic But, right next door in Indiana, it’s the wild west writ large. Effectively no gun control. Pretty much anyone can buy about anything, legally. Where do you suppose a lot of those Chicago guns come from? Yep.
The other key element is deciding, in a given entity (be it County X, Nation Y, or Planet Earth) constitutes a human right that can be provided for and protected and thus should be protected. I would argue that in 21stCentury America, access to good medical care without running through financial and administrative hoops makes that cut. That within reasonable limits along the lines of Roe v. Wade, a woman should have the right to decide if she will carry a pregnancy to term or not. Others have an interest, but none come close to hers.
Today, both of those examples are fully honored or completely ignored, depending on which side of a state line you reside. Put simply, that is nuts. If the case can be made that these are basic rights and society has the means to ensure them, no one should have the power to deny them. Even if most of your citizens wish to deny them – they don’t get to force other people to live their lives by rules they do not want or need.
How To Address the Conundrums?
It does not help to be simplistic. All such issues are thorny for understandable reasons. But at this point in human evolution, we should be able to figure out that while all of us may have some interest in a given issue, that does not give us the right to force others to live by our preferences.
A modest amount of libertarianism can be a good thing. If you don’t believe in abortion, you certainly should not have one. If you oppose gay marriage, by all means marry someone of the opposite sex. But have the maturity to recognize others feel as strongly as you do with opposing values and views, and they deserve the right to live their lives accordingly. Is it not possible to run a society on such a basis?
On the Other Hand, …
This is tricky business, for sure. What if someone feels strongly that “honor killings” are their sacred obligation and holy right? Given radically different views on what is taught in schools (this is NOT a new problem. More on this in a later posting), who decides what is taught, using what texts?
The point is not what is right or wrong, but how we frame the issues and how can we engage as a society to get this right more often than not. We find ourselves in a global, and a national, fight of genuine democracy vs autocracy. This is for all the marbles. We loose this one, we have lost everything. But if we win, we still need to address the “how do we engage each other, how do we decide these things?” conundrum.
I have a natural optimism that we have the capacity to get it right. I have natural pessimism that we will necessarily do the right things in these matters. If not, we deserve the fate that awaits us. If yes, there is the potential for a new golden age for humanity.
I wonder which path we will choose, collectively and individually.
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