Liberty and common sense and knowing the difference

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Montana Viewpoint By Jim Elliott
Thursday, July 23, 2020
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Pretty soon it looks like we are going to have to add a new group of people to the increasingly long list of those who can’t be discriminated against. I am talking, of course, of those hardy Americans who refuse to wear masks during the Covid pandemic. They are being refused service at private businesses where masks are mandated such as Costco, Walmart, and many more, and to add icing to the cake the State of Montana now requires masks in all indoor businesses and venues. True, all they would have to do is put on a mask and they would be able to go anywhere they want, but you have to take a stand on principle sometime in your life. Granted, the law is designed to protect people who can’t change the color of their skin or sexual orientation, but a personal opinion is just as impossible, or at least difficult, to change.

Since their claim that their liberties are being taken from them is not, to them, a frivolous issue, let us take a serious look at what Liberty is. In 1789, many of the French notables who supported the American Colonies in the Revolutionary War decided to stage their own revolution against their King, Louis the XVI. Like the Americans, they published a declaration of rationale called “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” While our Declaration of Independence named Liberty as an unalienable right of man, the French went a step further and defined it, and rather concisely, too: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else….”

It makes sense to me; complete “liberty” to do anything we want regardless of the consequences is little more than anarchy. Humans recognized that millennia ago when we first began to formulate laws to live by. Using the French definition of liberty, the maskless begin to tread on pretty thin ice because the whole purpose of wearing a mask is so that we don’t injure others by exposing them to whatever germs we might have to share.

So, we do have rights, but they are not limitless. Our Montana Constitutions section on Inalienable Rights carries the caveat, “In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.”

Basically, it’s just common sense that you don’t need to carry things to extremes in order to make your point. In fact, the more extreme—meaning petty—the issue the less credibility it has. When I find myself wanting to take something to the mat that will be impossible to win, I ask myself, “would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy.”

Going back to the two revolutions it’s important to note that after getting rid of their Kings the French and Americans behaved in different ways. In America, we won and bygones were bygones and on to tending to our own business. The French, however, enjoying that heady (so to speak) moment of victory couldn’t just stop cold so they went on to behead 16,600 people branded as counterrevolutionaries. About one hundred and twenty-eight years later the Russians had a revolution with a similar, bloody, aftermath. At least we Americans had the common sense to stop while we were ahead.

Common sense has been a staple of the American philosophy these many years, and it has served us well. There are things to fight for that are important and where the effort makes a difference and there are things that aren’t. The important thing is to know the difference, and that’s where common sense comes in.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.

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