Rights and responsibilties

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Montana Viewpoint By Jim Elliott
Thursday, August 5, 2021
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I once had a neighbor who belonged to, or at least sympathized with, a small group of people who resented being told what to do. Especially by the government. To this end he and his friends refused to buy automobile liability insurance, primarily because laws passed by the state Legislature required it, and they didn’t like being pushed around. Whether or not they couldn’t afford it, I don’t know, but their argument was—beside not wanting to be told what to do—that they were “responsible”. That meant, I assume, that if they were at fault in an accident that maimed someone in the other car that they would hap pily cover that person’s medical costs, rehabilitation, and lost wages, among other things. A noble thought, but one that could be thrown out the window once it became too expensive for them.

But they were defending their freedoms to do what they wanted and claimed that their beliefs were based on their interpretation of the Constitution as it enumerated their “rights”. Well, there are many rights that are worth defending and many of us can spout them off along with our beliefs as to how they may apply to us. But for almost every right, there is a qualifier that is as important as the right itself. The United States Constitution doesn’t name that qualifier, but the Montana Constitution does:

“In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.”

A good illustration of “corresponding responsibilities” is provided by the words Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. used in the 1919 decision on the First Amendment issue raised in Schenck v. U. S., “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘Fire’ in a theatre and causing a panic….”

Which brings me to the legitimacy of one of the arguments used by those who refuse Covid vaccination based on their interpretation of their Constitutional rights. They may or may not have justification on Constitutional grounds, but in exercising that right they need to take into account the effect of their decision on others in par ticular and on society in general. The line between exercising a belief and the effect of that on society is pretty blurry, but you don’t even have to invoke “responsibility” to define it. There are many other words to describe the appropriate behavior such as; common sense, consideration of others, politeness, and being accountable for your actions as they might affect society.

There are historical figures that those who refuse vaccination are similar to, and the one that comes immediately to mind was a young Irish woman named Mary Mallon who emigrated to the United States in 1884. In 1906 she secured her place in history when she got a job as cook for a wealthy New York family. In a period of a week six of the eleven people in the household became ill with Typhoid fever. The contagion was spread by Mary Mallon whose sanitary habits were not only questionable, they were just plain bad. She, it turned out was a carrier of Typhoid fever even though she had no symptoms of the disease, just like the asymptomatic carrier we hear about today in regards to Covid.

Mary did not wash her hands between trips to the bathroom and preparing meals for the household, and thus transmitted the disease to anyone who ate her cooking. She was forcibly made to give health authorities a stool sample, which was positive for Salmonella Typhi, and then removed to an isolated cottage on the grounds of a hospital where she was kept in quarantine for two years. After her release she went back to cooking, but using a different name. It is estimated that she was responsible for 3000 cases of Typhoid Fever. Many of those cases resulted in death, thanks to her stubbornness.

If you want to go down in history by standing up for your “rights” do it by helping others, not hurting them. A legacy like that of a woman who became famous as “Typhoid Mary” is not a good one to aspire to.

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

If you want to go down in history by standing up for your “rights” do it by helping others, not hurting them.

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