Paying cost of Bill of Rights is worthwhile

MORGANTOWN, W.V. (U-WIRE) — These are the bad days for the Bill of Rights. For example, its most important provision, the First Amendment, seems to be under constant attack. Conservatives are wanting to redraft its anti-establishment and “free exercise” clauses.
Meanwhile, liberals are driving to roll back freedom of speech under the banner of political correctness. Then again, the Bill of Rights has hardly known anything but bad days. From John Adams’ Sedition Act to Senator Exon’s Communications Decency Act, we’ve been running scared of the Bill of Rights almost since we adopted it.
That’s not surprising, though. After all, the Bill of Rights is an awfully scary document. It’s scary because it provides protection to two groups whom the average person doesn’t often like — accused persons and people who are different from him or her. Considering the latter group first, it’s an old notion — “I like having my rights, but why do those people over there who don’t look, think, or believe like me get to have rights?” And, often, the reason isn’t that clear. But the average person needs to remember that some day he or she may be “those people over there” who don’t look, think or believe like the powers that be.
Governments can be very capricious. One minute you may be hot stuff. But the next minute, you could be a hunted outcast. The Bill of Rights, along with the Fourteenth Amendment, is a guarantee that the government will never act capriciously or arbitrarily against one of the sovereign people just because of appearance, ideas or beliefs. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a very good thing.
Now, the accused, admittedly, aren’t a lovable bunch of people. In general, they are guilty as sin and the unmitigated scum of the earth. However, they get paramount protection from the Bill of Rights because every once in a while a person does get struck by lightning. Every once in a while the person accused of a crime is innocent. That’s the reason the scum of the earth get protection. Because every once in a while one accused person doesn’t deserve to be put in prison or to be put to death. Now, there are those who argue it’s all right if an innocent person gets punished as long as it is for the greater good. Well, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no greater good than justice. And there is no justice done when an innocent person is punished, no matter the rationalization. Truly, it is better to have hundreds of the guilty go free than to have one innocent person convicted.
Onto another reason why the Bill of Rights is so unnerving. The Bill of Rights is a big monkey wrench in a well-ordered society. It’s the only document in the history of humankind that allows the average person to say “no” to the government. That definitely does hamper the government’s ability to administer society. It can even be said that the Bill of Rights keeps the government from doing some really good things for society. And there’s really little doubt about the fact that the government needs to be able to administer society. A lot of debate, however, exists over how much the government needs to administer society. But there is agreement that the government needs to administer society to some degree. Some political theorists, such as Thomas Hobbes, say that the government’s power to administer society needs to be absolute, or life would be “cruel, boorish and short.”
Hobbes does admit that life under an oppressive regime with absolute power could be quite terrible, but he believes without such a government society would collapse into an even worse situation. The Founders correctly disagreed with that. They recognized that with no government or with a weak government society would degenerate into anarchy. That’s why they replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. However, they also knew that life under an oppressive government with tremendous power could be just as bad. So, in forming the new governmental structure, the Founders tried to find a nice balance.
And they did find a nice balance. The Constitution provided Americans with a government which prevented lawlessness and which effectively administered the progress of society. The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, successfully defended against an oppressive regime. In adopting the Bill of Rights, along with other earlier parts of the Constitution, the Founders knew they were giving up the optimal efficiency at which the government could operate. Under the Bill of Rights, the government can’t do certain things even if doing those things is efficient and perhaps good for society as well. The Founders were willing to give up having the best government they could have to keep the government they did have from turning into a tyrannical regime.
They were willing because at the bottom of it all they valued justice and freedom above all else. That’s why a majority cannot trample over the rights of a minority who does not look, think or believe like the majority does. That’s why hundreds of the guilty go free to protect the one lone innocent. That’s why, no matter how laudable its goals, the government cannot always do what it likes, even for the greater good, for fear it itself might degenerate into a worse situation — an oppressive regime. I know the concepts of justice and freedom can seem distant and abstract, especially when we’re not the people whose rights are being trampled. But I will say it again. Governments can be very capricious. As soon as the powers that be get done destroying the people over there, they just might decide to come after you and your people. And without the Bill of Rights, you wouldn’t stand a chance. So please join me in finally providing the Bill of Rights with some safe, happy days. It certainly has provided you with plenty.
Adam Dean’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s West Virginia University Daily Athenaum.