Flag Day. What’s that all about? There’s a nice little history of the day that can be found here. The dates have shifted a little over the years, and it wasn’t until President Truman signed an act of Congress designating June 14 as the “official Flag Day” that we settled on that date.
Flag Day seems an appropriate time to think about the Pledge of Allegiance that we all learned when we were in Elementary School. Specifically, I want to talk about the last six words: “with Liberty and Justice for all.”
As a person who has always had libertarian tendencies, it has sometimes seemed to me that the last six words of the Pledge have been forgotten by those who demand unwavering respect for the flag. Perhaps that’s because we don’t talk about what the WORDS of the Pledge actually mean, anymore.
I could write a long discussion about each element of the Pledge, but let me focus on two words: “Liberty” and “Justice.”
What is Liberty? Do we as a nation still believe in it? Here’s the definition form the Merriam Webster online dictionary:
“Liberty”: the quality or state of being free:
a : the power to do as one pleases
b : freedom from physical restraint
c : freedom from arbitrary or despotic control
d : the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges
e : the power of choice
As a Libertarian, I would add one caveat to all of these things: “provided that exercise of liberty does not directly harm someone else.” Hence, with liberty, comes self-responsibility (or as Uncle Ben said in Spiderman, “with great power, comes great responsibility”). If you want to drink alcohol, or engage in other risky behavior, most libertarians would say you should be allowed to do so—PROVIDED that you are not harming someone else in the process.
Of course in today’s society, “harm” (or “potential harm”) to others is often used as an excuse for limiting the liberty of others. This leaves us having to define what “harm” is, and where lines should be drawn, and those inevitably become political battles based on the preferences of those debating. If the liberty is one that a legislator doesn’t personally agree with, the common reaction is to want to restrict the liberty for all, on the grounds of it being “dangerous”—for society, or for the individuals themselves.
In Nebraska, every year that I’ve been in the Legislature, the question of our motorcycle helmet law comes up. Many motorcyclists would like for us to do away with the helmet law, and restore their liberty to ride without a helmet.
Whether riding without a helmet is a WISE thing to do, the question really comes down to whether individuals should have the liberty to choose for themselves. Potential harms—such as psychological trauma for first responders who answer a rescue call for someone who has been in a serious motorcycle accident, or the potential of spending more taxpayer dollars on long term care for those with traumatic brain injuries—are often raised as objections to getting rid of the helmet law. But what risks should adults be able to take upon themselves? Should government be able to punish you for taking those risks? Do we live in a state of liberty when government is exerting control over our behavior when it doesn’t directly and regularly harm someone else?
There are, of course, some actions which place others in very real physical danger—driving under the influence, for instance. But what real danger is someone who is riding a motorcycle without a helmet likely to place you or me in, when we're driving down the road in our SUVs?
There are tons of other examples government—whether at the national, state or local level—restricting the liberty of individuals to do what they please. Let’s have that conversation sometime!
What about “Justice”? There are varying definitions on the concept of “justice” as well, but I believe that in the context of the Pledge of Allegiance, Nebraska’s State Motto—“Equality Before the Law” pretty well covers it. We are a nation based on the rule of law, and our goal should be equal (and fair) treatment before the bar of justice.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that in an effort to be a nation of laws, we have gone down the road of having too many laws. Certainly we need laws that allow us to determine how to punish people who have done harm to others; we need laws to address how to handle civil disputes between neighbors. But sometimes I wonder if we haven’t taken it a little too far—and that in creating more laws, we’ve diminished our opportunities for real justice. I’ll expand on that thought in some commentary regarding criminal justice efforts that are underway, at a later time.
In the meantime—fly your flag, on Flag Day, and any other time. Not because you have to (we have the liberty NOT to do things, as well as TO do things), but because you WANT to. And at the very least, contemplate the meaning of the pledge that most of us have recited many times, to that flag.