Sunday, August 24, 2014

On Liberty

In my Mormon congregation last week, a member of our stake high council spoke on the subject of liberty which is one of those principles that where politics mixes with religion. To be honest, I can't say I was able to absorb his talk completely. It was long and meaty and we have four children that have a hard time sitting still through church meetings. But I did want to summarize bits of it I was able to get and to also add a few extra thoughts of my own.

Many politicians act as if freedom can only be granted or taken away by the government. Our founding documents act as a rebuttal to this, describing the unalienable rights of each person granted to them by their Creator. Government can attempt to take away these rights and have throughout history, but oppressive government is not the only way to limit one's liberty.

One of the principles taught in the talk is why obedience to God's law is the way to find both personal happiness and somewhat paradoxically, preserve liberty. This principle can, in some ways, be a rebuttal to the more libertarian view that society is free insomuch as we are able to reduce government's role to an enforcer of contracts. Rather it's a recognition that in our choices we can limit our own and another's freedom in ways that may not be obvious at first glance. One example of this is when we fall into an addiction. It's hard to feel free when we are compelled to behave in ways that cause us personal shame, embarrassment or worse.

But another less obvious way that sin inhibits our freedom is that it blunts our ability to experience the kind of growth we would otherwise have. This will limit our ability to develop talents and improve our capacity. And in the end, our life's experience will become muted and our choices limited.

But our country has in some ways done a poor job in ensuring liberty, especially for the poor and the non-white.

Unjust Sentencing
In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, there are so many examples of how we limit liberty by coming down far too harshly on crime. Much of this was an overreaction to the get tough on crime movement of the 1980's that still plague us today.

Three Strikes Laws

Matt Tabbai:
"Despite the passage in late 2012 of a new state ballot initiative that prevents California from ever again giving out life sentences to anyone whose 'third strike' is not a serious crime, thousands of people – the overwhelming majority of them poor and nonwhite – remain imprisoned for a variety of offenses so absurd that any list of the unluckiest offenders reads like a macabre joke, a surrealistic comedy routine."

"Like wars, forest fires and bad marriages, really stupid laws are much easier to begin than they are to end. As the years passed and word of great masses of nonviolent inmates serving insanely disproportionate terms began to spread in the legal community, it became clear that any attempt to repair the damage done by Three Strikes would be a painstaking, ungainly process at best. The fear of being tabbed 'soft on crime' left politicians and prosecutors everywhere reluctant to lift their foot off the gas pedal for even a moment, and before long the Three Strikes punishment machine evolved into something that hurtled forward at light speed, but moved backward only with great effort, fractions of a millimeter at a time."
The War on Drugs

This is an interesting one because drug addiction can cause enormous damage to an individual afflicted, but to think the solution is to lock up people, primarily poor people of color, for minor drug offenses is not the way to stop it... Well, it's like trying to protect liberty by limiting it. And it has had devastating affects. After spending $1 trillion fighting the war, we are left with this:
About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people -- yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.
Our Juvenile Detention Center

Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down The House:
"'The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn't gang involvement, wasn't family issues, wasn't delinquency itself,' Bernstein says. 'The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.'"
Our Sex Offender Registery

Sexual offense is a crime that's really tough to write about because it has such a high level of stigma in our country today. But the laws around sex offenders is getting irrational:
"American policies regarding sex offenders mark them as a special category of criminals for whom no stigma is too crippling, no regulations are too restrictive, and no penalty is too severe. This attitude, driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety. Like the lustful predators of their nightmares, Americans pondering the right way to deal with sex offenders seem captive to their passions."
I encourage you to read the article in its entirety but I will quote the conclusion:
"In a 2004 Criminal Law Bulletin article, William Mitchell College of Law professor Eric Janus argued that 'sexual predator laws provide a model for undercutting…constitutional protections.' The process, Janus said, starts with a universally despised group of people who, like suspected terrorists, attract no public sympathy. He warned that 'we are at risk of becoming a ‘preventive state,’ in which the paradigm of governmental social control has shifted from solving and punishing crimes that have been committed to identifying ‘dangerous’ people and depriving them of their liberty before they can do harm.' To most Americans, I fear, this prospect is not nearly as scary as the possibility that a sex offender lives down the street.'"
 Development As Freedom

The nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, makes the compelling case in this book that the government should be proactive not just eliminating unjust imprisonment, but also in enhancing freedom and equality among it's citizenry. Sen summarizes this position here:
"On the other hand, the freedom of agency that we have individually is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities that are available to us. There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements. It is important to give simultaneous recognition to the centrality of individual freedom and to the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. This is the basic approach that this work tries to explore and examine."
Similarly, social opportunities of education and health care, which may require public action, complement individual opportunities of economic and political participation and also help to foster our own initiatives in overcoming our respective deprivations. If the point of departure of the approach lies in the identification of freedom as the main object of development, the reach of the policy analysis lies in establishing the empirical linkages that make the viewpoint of freedom coherent and cogent as the guiding perspective of the process of development. 
I wholehartedly agree with my high councilor who taught us why obedience to God's law is essential for personal liberty. But often times this is not enough. For one, none of us is perfectly obedient, and it's why the doctrine of grace runs hand in hand with obedience. Personal liberty requires a climate of compassion when we make sincere efforts to overcome past mistakes. A world where someone is locked up 25 years to life for stealing a pair of socks is a world where one's liberty has been unjustly taken away. Rather we need to live in a society where punishment truly fits the crime. Where there is a pathway for people to overcome their past mistakes so that they can live good, productive lives. This requires compassion and sympathy and a degree of sophistication.

But also, I might add, personal liberty comes hand-in-hand with social justice. We are free or we are bound together. A world where some of our population is deprived access to basic health care or adequate education is a world that is not free. Freedom requires a functioning community, society and government. Where resources are sustainable, the environment is protected, where basic infrastructure is developed and adequately maintained, and where everyone has the opportunity for self-development and personal growth.

No one is truly free individually.


Anonymous said...

The right to self defense (2nd amendment) is also an unalienable right, and thankfully we live in a country that allows for this. It's under constant threat much like the right to privacy. Hopefully you support the entire Constitution. Our rights are taken when we become complacent or do not show up at the polls. Freedom isn't free -- it takes constant work.


Watson Family said...

I get jittery whenever politics come up in sacrament meeting. I'm ALL about separation of church and state. Last year we had a high councilman give a talk which included a large number of quotes from church leaders back during the cold war era. Completely reminded me of the annoying email fwd's I'd get from LDS members before the last 2 elections, using the same quotes. For me at least, the Spirit was totally gone from the meeting, and so I opened my scriptures in hopes of silently bringing peace, and a focus on the Savior, to my soul.

tempe turley said...

Thanks for posting. I agree, but it happens :-).