The exercise of rights will always have consequences

Debates over rights so often see the observations that no right is unlimited and that all rights come with responsibilities brought up.  Typically, these statements are made by someone who has a list of desired restrictions to promote.  The implication here is that the exercise of rights has consequences, that those consequences open up our actions to regulation.  With that in mind, let’s consider one particular right that is of interest to many in this country.

Only about half of the American population participates in this right.  And many of our fellow citizens express no desire ever to take part.  More men than women are active in the exercise, and of Americans who aren’t currently taking part in this right, sixty-five percent of women have no interest, while only forty-two percent of men express no willingness to get involved.  These numbers fit in with a general decline that’s been seen over the second half of the twentieth century.  Predictably, the participation rate in many European countries is much lower than ours.

Opinion on this right has shifted over the years.  During the midst of the Clinton administration, support for the idea of general exercise ran at twenty-seven percent, while opposition came in at sixty-eight percent.  But today, those numbers have almost reversed, with sixty-one percent supporting the idea that all Americans have this right and thirty-seven percent against.  This shift over the last twenty years has been the result of the work of interest groups and regular citizens who had their rights denied.

And perhaps there’s good reason for this.  Participation in this right, whether licensed by the state or not, has a disturbingly high rate of violence associated with it, making up a large part of total injuries and homicides that occur in a given year.  The harm is also especially damaging to children, with twelve out of every thousand children experiencing some form of violence related to the exercise of the right in question.

In economic terms, the cost of this right runs in the hundreds of dollars each year for the average American, and the total immediate spending as a result of the exercise is more than $13 billion per annum.  The legal consequences are much higher, with annual figures estimated in ranges from $30 billion to $175 billion.

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why the exercise of the right in question is contentious.  Fortunately, a series of court rulings, culminating in a five-to-four decision in the Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy filling his usual role as a swing vote, this time in favor. Opponents of the right have worked to undermine or outright negate the ruling, however, showing that the exercise of this right will remain a controversy for some time to come.

What right am I referring to?  Astute readers—especially those who have checked the links—will realize that I’ve been talking about the specific right to marry and more generally the right to enter into relationships of choice with other adults.  And yet, despite all the consequences, we let adult couples enter into the legal status of marriage under a shall-issue license that is now available to both straight and gay couples.  Other Americans choose to live together without asking the government’s permission.

Of course the exercise of rights has consequences.  But gun rights are not unique in their costs.  Driving, being in relationships, and expressing one’s opinions also do harms, but in a free society, we’ve made the choice to protect rights, not in spite of the costs, but because of the benefits.  And because of the recognition that society lacks the moral authority to deny the basic rights of all human beings.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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