For the General Welfare, or an Encroachment on Rights?

-By Nancy Salvato

Taking Metra usually affords me a solid 20 minutes to read on my Kindle during my commute home and I relish that pause from responsibility to research many of the topics on which I write. Tonight’s train ride, however, provided an unanticipated diversion during which I mused on a variety of scenarios that left me pondering. What percentage of the population would place such scenarios under the category of an encroachment on one’s individual rights in the guise of the public interest or visa-versa? The catalyst for the redirection of my concentration was correlated to one particular passenger who seriously compromised my efforts to focus on the inner workings of the Executive Branch of our government. Due to the exercise of her individual rights, and some really “gawd-awful” perfume, I determined to leave my seat -preferring to wait in an icy cold vestibule until the train reached my stop.

Though I felt frustrated and put out by someone whose liberal use of perfume almost immediately gave me a piercing headache, I recognize that it is well within her right to wear the stuff. What I would often prefer from my fellow passengers is very different from what I can reasonably expect from my fellow passengers. This is not the first time my olfactory organ has been overwhelmed by the odors I confront as I make my way home. Who can account for what one delights in eating? Though it is not permitted on the train, people consume anything from fried chicken to Asian Cuisine on the BNSF Line, with complete disregard for those around them. Some of the extremely inconsiderate sit down next to a complete stranger and proceed to gorge themselves. Others have no compunctions about what falls to the floor or is left behind on the seat. What bothers me most is the co-mingling of smells in a confined area. It is the opposite of appetizing, and usually has the effect of making me want to, in the words of Garth from SNL’s Wayne’s World, “hurl”.

While some might find me more sensitive to smell than the general population, there are others whose seemingly muted senses of smell gives them the appearance of being absolutely oblivious to the offensive odors they emit from their bodies. Lack of deodorant, bad gas, greasy food, cheap perfume, not to mention the exhalation of the deadly CO2 in the form of a burp reeking of who knows what and which the EPA recently labeled a pollutant, all contribute to the foul cacophony we are expected to breathe in such confined quarters. I guarantee there will be many who disagree with my assessment that an assault to my senses is not a breach of my Constitutional Rights. Where, though, ought those elected officials charged with drafting and voting on legislation draw the line before codifying limitations on the general population?

The Framers clearly understood that any decision made which accommodated the demands of one special interest would necessarily be to the detriment of another. James Madison, however, speculated that the individual agendas of the hundreds and hundreds of factions in such a large republic would be moderated as they joined together to gain greater influence. Consolidating to effect change forces individual interest groups to recognize and take into consideration each others’ priorities, effecting compromise and moderation. Conversely, those elected to office ought to be extremely conservative when passing legislation so as not to alienate members of the constituency. Furthermore, the Framers deliberately set up checks and balances to limit the ability of the Federal government to pass legislation which could infringe on individual or states’ rights. Shared powers between the division of branches was intended to force them to compromise, slow down and think through the possible consequences of any legislation they were considering.

Still, untold numbers of people do not for one minute take into consideration how their actions affect others. It begins with small things, like two people stopping to chat in the middle of a sidewalk the precise moment a slew of people who upon disembarking from a train will need to pass, and instead of moving, force other people to tread on rain soaked, muddy grass, or icy snow. The pace and ability to walk in a forward motion is immediately impaired of anyone who dials and proceeds to talk on a cell while walking. This action immediately slows the pace of anyone following behind, and makes it harder to pass by if rushing to make a connection. Who hasn’t been subjected to an extremely personal or completely frivolous conversation taking place on a cell phone in a public space, including a bathroom stall?

There will always be people who don’t take into consideration how their choices affect others. There will always be people who take offense to the actions of others. We must remember that a consequence of the choice to live together in this nation under its laws is giving up some rights while acknowledging the rights of others. There is a balance that must be maintained between individual rights and the general welfare of society. Extending others the same considerations one would hope to expect for oneself can make living together more enjoyable or at the very least, tolerable.

Because I am offended by the smell and it makes me physically sick, should others be forced to stop wearing perfume in public spaces? Because it only takes one person lighting up a cigarette on a windy Chicago sidewalk to pollute the air the rest of us breathe en route to our destinations, should that person be confined to smoking at home? Should a restaurant that wants to cater to smokers during their lunch hour be ordered to run a smoke free facility? Because some people are atheists or members of other faiths, should a Christian Conductor or passenger be forced to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? By the same token, should a belief system whose members perform acts of terror to force others to show acceptance for their religious practices be tolerated? Is it better to remind the general population to be aware of suspicious packages or unusual activity and report this to a law enforcement official? Wouldn’t it be less invasive and better for the general welfare to implement a no tolerance policy for anybody whose acts convey complete disregard for human life, one of the natural rights protected under the Constitution?

Those who hold office and those who have voted them into power have displayed a great deal of confusion about rights and how our rights translate into our responsibility to the other members of a society. We would do well to consider how our actions effects others without calling for government to limit any further the rights guaranteed to us in our Constitution. By the same token, we should insist that the government step in when serious violations affecting our lives and liberties take place. For example, the government should acknowledge that our country is being forced to wage an all out war against an enemy that has infiltrated our borders and is constructing terrorist plots right under our noses.

It is worth noting that our natural rights protected under the Constitution do not cost the taxpayer money. The system of law put into place to protect those rights, however, will need funding. The government is not charged with taking care of us. Should entitlements be described as rights? How can anyone justify a redistribution of wealth as constitutional or a mandate of government?

Most of us can negotiate the actions of others. It is not the responsibility of the government to legislate away any or all actions considered offensive to people. Citizens should not expect the government to take on what can and should be handled in the private sector. However, the government is charged with keeping us safe from our enemies (I’m not talking about transfats, lack of exercise, or disinterest in the feelings of the transgendered). It is the governments’ responsibility to identify and take whatever action is necessary to protect us from harm’s way.

Oh, and by the way, Happy Hanukah and Merry Christmas!
Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, ( a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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