As President John F. Kennedy implored of this country in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” we find that while the Bill of Rights enshrined what the country owes the individual, no correlating enumeration of what the individual owes the country has been so expressly enshrined. The Constitution contains certain implied responsibilities (e.g. lawfulness, loyalty, jury service, national defense, and voting), but a Bill of Responsibilities could bring these latent assumptions to life and provide the perspective so badly needed today for understanding individual rights in their proper scope and role.
Individual rights have limits, as the Supreme Court has consistently ruled (Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 26, 1905; Kan. v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346, 356-357, 1997), and must be balanced by collective commitments to the common good, common well-being, and true social order (Thomas Jefferson wrote that a man has “no natural right in opposition to his social duties” in the “Letter to Danbury Baptist Association”; Bates, Religious Liberty 384, 1946). Yet a conception of individual rights as absolute has recently grown, holding no regard for social order and scornfully rejecting responsibility toward country. Such unbalanced “rights” are really egotistical pseudo-rights that scream for anarchy whenever they are denied totalitarian imposition.
If more individuals fostered a spirit of civic responsibility toward country, the self-absorbed enthusiasm for social disorder (rioting, burning, looting) we now see across the country would not arise, let alone with such frictionless ease. These recent events demonstrate that responsibilities must take on the same central importance as rights if we wish to overcome the destructive spirit of boundless entitlement that guides present civic irresponsibility.
To cultivate a forceful spirit of civic responsibility, a more robust conception of responsibilities is now needed, and a Bill of Responsibilities could be the spark. Such duties would provide the setting for individual rights, not a substitution of them. The following is what a Bill of Responsibilities could look like:
1. Support the United States and seek to perfect its union and establish justice.
2. Provide for the common defense, and when keeping and bearing arms, train in their safe and effective use.
3. Protect and defend human life.
4. Respect property, both public and private.
5. Participate in local, state, and national political life, and be apprised of issues affecting the same.
6. Ensure domestic tranquility by respecting the rights of others and treating others with respect, tolerance, and dignity.
7. Preserve and conserve public parks and lands.
8. Be as self-supporting as possible.
9. Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws.
10. Uphold, protect, and promote the general welfare and common good of the United States so that the proper freedom of the individual may be secured, and true social order attained.
The author is a practicing attorney in southern California and a graduate of UCLA School of Law.
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