Rights And Obligations

 A few months ago,  Bret Stephens wrote an essay in New York Times that included the following paragraph about what he–accurately– called the  “classically liberal core of intelligent conservatism,” defined as:

 The idea that immigrants are an asset, not a liability; that the freedoms of speech and conscience must extend to those whose ideas we loathe; that American power ought to be harnessed to protect the world’s democracies from aggressive dictators; that we are richer at home by freely trading goods abroad; that nothing is more sacred than democracy and the rule of law; that patriotism is about preserving the capacity to criticize a country we love while loving the country we criticize.

Well, how extremely “woke” of the Times’ conservative columnist…

I continue to be amazed–gobsmacked, really–by the complete 180-degree turn of a Republican Party that used to be serious about such old-fashioned ideas, along with “duty” and “responsibility.” 

In January, Richard Haass published The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. While it once might have been seen as an exercise in “preaching to the choir,” these days, a depressing number of Americans are no longer members of that choir.

As the linked review begins,

It’s an idea as old as Rousseau: With rights come responsibilities toward the social contract. To this, Haass adds the admonition that “American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.” Those rights are constitutionally enumerated even if “the struggle over rights…continues to this day.” The obligations are less well enshrined, though the 10 Haass offers are unobjectionable. The first, echoing the right of freedom of speech and thought, asks that citizens be informed about how the government works and be prepared to participate in civic duties. On that second point, the fundamental obligation is to vote (and to insist on it when that right is impeded). “Voting is the most basic act of citizenship,” writes the author. “It creates a bond between the individual and government and between the individual and country.” Given a largely uninformed citizenry, that bond would seem tenuous, and it’s also conditioned by a lack of civility, which asks of each citizen a reasoned willingness to set aside ideology in order to deal with matters of shared concern or interest “on their merits, not on motives you may ascribe to those making the arguments.” Civility bespeaks a willingness to accept another obligation, which is to reject and repudiate violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6, 2021. Civility also feeds into the obligation to respect norms and the lessons of civics, such as the idea that the common good often overrules one’s selfish demands—e.g., being allowed to smoke in a crowded restaurant or walk around unvaccinated and unmasked in a pandemic. Sadly, of course, those who most need to read this agreeably thoughtful book likely won’t, but that’s the way of the world.

I am hardly the only observer of today’s rancid and decidedly uncivil politics to endorse the importance of re-emphasizing these obligations. 

Rights–as Haass points out–imply duties. Your right to exercise freedom of speech, for example, imposes a duty on me (and especially on government) not to engage in behavior making that speech impossible. I don’t have to listen or agree; I am free to respond critically–but neither individual citizens nor government is free to censor you. (A/K/A “pulling a DeSantis.” ) When an individual citizen does so, it is unbecoming and, I’d argue, unAmerican; when government does so, it’s unconstitutional.

Haass does not limit the obligations of citizenship to the duties implied by our constitutional rights. He quite properly includes duties/obligations of  democratic participation–especially informed voting. 

The approaching national elections are very likely to be a turning point for this country. What is at stake is nothing less than our national commitment to America’s longtime–albeit still unrealized– aspirations to democratic self-rule, liberty and equality.

In 2024, the electorate will be faced with a deceptively simple question: will we continue to work toward realizing those aspirations? Or will we make a philosophical U-turn into White Christian Nationalism? 

It really is as simple–and profound–as that.

I have absolute faith in the good will of most Americans. I remain convinced that–no matter how loud they are– the racists, anti-Semites and misogynists are a minority. What I worry about is the willingness of the majority of Americans to take their civic obligations seriously–to inform themselves, to ignore the incessant messaging that tells them their votes won’t count, and to turn out at the polls.

Good people need to vote like America depends on their ballots, because the version we and they want to inhabit really, truly does.


  1. Amen! In several years, I have only commented once or twice, and very rarely read the comments. However, as a FL resident, (joyfully) relocating out of this state within a month, I wanted to thank you for my morning laugh:
    “… censor you. (A/K/A “pulling a DeSantis.” )”

  2. Kissing cousins of rights and obligations are freedoms and responsibilities. Life becomes difficult for those who obsess one out of alignment with the other.

  3. It seems to me that freedom of speech imposes a duty on the speaker as well as on the rest of us. Surely the speaker has a duty to not use his freedom to infringe on the freedoms of others. For example, speech that incites violence infringes on the right to life of his target of that violence. Doesn’t the right to live supersede all other rights?

  4. I agree and am glad you referenced the book because I had forgotten it.
    The First Amendment gives us the right of Freedom of Speech, but it also carries the implication that, to the best of our ability, that our speech is honest and true. The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms, but we must bear them responsibly by learning how to use them safely and knowing when to shoot and not to shoot, and how to be a responsible gun owner. Each “right” carries with it a “responsibility”. It is when people ignore the responsibility that rights become eroded and are in danger of being taken away.
    I look forward to reading that book and see if my ideas of responsibility align with the author’s.

  5. We can all see the ideal the framers imagined, but the reality differs. As James points out, we have responsibilities to uphold. Einstein noted the problem in 1939:

    “Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.”

    It is in the oligarch’s (private capitalists) interests to use propaganda to separate and divide the citizens. The truth is not valued – the truth gets you 175 years in prison.


  6. My hope is that the majority of republican voters will recognize the danger to their own lives and freedoms if another radical authoritarian power hungry person is voted into the White House.

  7. Firstly, I would have to say I really like Richard Haass.

    Unfortunately, I think as Richard Haass may or may not realize, humanity doesn’t do well on its own. Conscience? Compassion? Empathy? Duty? Obligation? Law?

    These traits and others are labor intensive! But it’s supposed to be a labor of love! That being said, unfortunately, humanity is not a loving species.

    Humanity does not recognize something larger than self. When most see them selves as their own gods, King of the castle? Master of all they survey? Is that sustainable? It takes more than a store-bought piece of paper to make someone intellectual. It does take being submissive to a higher power. But even the most knowledgeable, those who have the most wisdom, have to be inclined to submit to a higher power. History shows, Kings don’t get along with each other too well, wars are fought, won or lost by the egos of Kings.

    King Solomon as noted by Queen of Sheba in scripture, was the most knowledgeable and intellectual individual she had ever heard of or witnessed firsthand. But even he didn’t listen to the higher power in the end, and his hundreds upon hundreds of wives ended up causing him immense problems and he died unfaithful to his higher power.

    Current religious incarnations, don’t really believe in a higher power, they believe in acquiring higher power for themselves. If they were submitting to the higher power as they claim, they wouldn’t be transforming themselves to thugs, grifters, bullies, and con artists! They wouldn’t be talking out of both sides of their mouth!

    This country is not exceptional, really, there is no country that is exceptional. It doesn’t matter if it’s liberal or theocratic, it doesn’t matter if it’s secular or conservative, they all fall short. They all look to divide and conquer, they all look to themselves as the supreme authority!

    As society continues to decay, you can see the effect of self-worship! Guns, thuggery, disrespect, the desire to execute your neighbor. Ignorant politicians looking for their own worshipers, appealing to the most negative aspect of human thinking and desire! Telling folks they can carry guns, they can go to the dollar store and buy one! Well maybe not the dollar store but that’s coming pretty soon I would imagine. 1,000 horsepower vehicles drag racing on residential streets, killing thousands a year. The elderly and the children being gunned down by the thousands for sport! The law is just a suggestion, because that’s what law has been reduced to.

    When there is no higher power, if, people are convinced there is no higher power, then “why” should there be regulations, except the ones in their own heads? After all, if one perceives themselves as their own God, then why is there any law above what they decide for themselves? And, it’s only going to get worse!

  8. I will echo Joan’s “Amen!”
    But I will also suggest that John’s hope may be squashed, especially as the rhetoric
    of the coming election season intensifies. I have no doubt that it will.
    I do remain optimistic about the ’24 election outcome, in spite of my cynicism, as my
    gov. is about to announce his rancid candidacy for ’24. “Rancid,” and its close cousin,
    “Asswipe” have become some of my most used adjectives over the last 2 years.

  9. @ Nancy: I share your hope but believe that they will only do so after the election, if at all.

    My fear is that in 2024 the Democrats will hold the presidency, retake the House, and lose the Senate. If that happens, McConnell will dial up his obstruction tactics to 11. There would be zero Biden-nominated judges confirmed, and many agencies will be crippled by running with acting, rather than confirmed, leadership because nominations will either be slow-walked or Garlanded. And why not? There were no consequences for having done so before. After he grinds government to a halt, the Sunday shows and the stenographic DC press will parrot Republican attacks and blame Democrats for governmental inaction. Then we lose the House as well in 2026, which sets us up for 2028, when the USA will be replaced by a totally different country bearing the same name.

    As has been said by those who guard people against assasinations: “We have to succeed every time, they only have to succeed once”

  10. One point that I need to make is that not every right is enumerated, hence Amendment IX. We all share the responsibilities that go hand in hand with the rights, sadly too few Americans have been informed either in school or in their homes of their responsibilities.

  11. Excellent post –

    I am reminded of Reagan’s double edged response to a heckler, “I paid for this microphone.”

    He was right the the heckler was trying to prevent people from hearing what he wanted to say; he was wrong that “payment” has anything to do with free speech.

    The Tea Party flipped the heckler sides and prevented anyone else’s speech in their presence. The GOP seems to have gone down hill rapidly since then.

    Warren – love your “optimism” – let’s hope that your predictions are wrong.

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