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Herbert London: What The Seder Tells Us and Doesn’t Tell Us

In the prayers associated with the biblical tale of Exodus is the idea that each generation seeks new found freedoms extending the rights of individuals. The seder has come to endorse the expression of this liberation. At some level this is understandable since Pharaoh denied Jews religious freedom prompting Moses to lead his flock to a land where Jews could live without dictatorial imposition.

At this moment rights have proliferated to such a degree that freedom is often confused with license and normative judgment is trounced beneath the heavy boot of fashionable opinion. Rights proliferation comes with a price. A new right requires protection. Ironically for a right to gain acceptance government intervention is necessary.

If women have the right to engage in combat missions, the government must impose the standard on military officers, even those who believe this right will diminish combat effectiveness.

If homosexuals have the right to marry, state governments through the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, will insist that this right must be recognized even if many contend homosexual marriage will undermine the institution of marriage generally.

Rights depend on the coercion of government. Even rights that presumably add to freedom’s expression, are dependent on governmental power to restrict freedom. Suppose, for example, a commander, fearful that women in his combat unit militate against the accomplishment of a mission. Is he free to defy government regulation?

Similarly, gun control advocates who wish to restrict the right to bear arms, are violating the ability of a bodega proprietor to protect his life and property.

Advocates for homosexual marriage overlook the fact that many who oppose this newly discovered right violate the religious perspective of others. Isn’t the free exercise of religion a guaranteed right that allows for the repudiation of homosexual marriage?

What most believers in the rights revolution overlook is that the gain in perceived freedom leads inexorably to the expansion of government authority. This condition falls into the category of being careful what you wish for. Former President Ford argued that the government that can give you everything you want is also a government that can take everything you have.

The distance between government authority to protect basic rights and government coercion to expand rights is a matter worth emphasizing. Americans often overlook the fact that our Founders believed in limited government and the assertion of individual liberty. The assertion of government authority is, in some sense, a function of an increasingly complex society. That is one incontrovertible data point, but it by no means the only explanation. The search for new rights also provides insight into the growth of government.

While government is sometimes “the problem;” there are times when it is the solution. However, the expansion of government inevitably reduces personal liberty. President Lincoln freed the slaves with the Thirteenth Amendment, but he did so by violating Constitutional provisions. Freedom for some, denial for others. Lincoln, in my judgment, made the right call, but there is a subtlety in judgments of this kind soi disant moralists often overlook.

Seeking new rights is a privilege. Conferring those rights is a law. Sustaining those rights is coercive. That is a lesson for the moment, a lesson that reappears when the Seder ceremony tells the story of Jewish liberation from Egyptian slave masters. 

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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