Civil liberties


I recently heard a spokesperson for a Prisoner Action Group outlining the denial of civil liberties associated with prison. I must admit that I don't think prison is a most useful social organization. It seems to me more appropriate for people to work and pay for the damage they cause their fellow citizens, rather than for us to pay taxes for their enforced stay in prison. Prisons should exist for those who are too dangerous to let out on the streets. Yet, the question is this, is it a denial of a person's fundamental civil liberties to throw them into jail? Have their human rights been infringed?

There are two opposing views of society. On the one hand, we can have a society where we all exist for the common good. Individual thought and action are assessed on the grounds of the benefit for society at large. On the other hand, we can have a society were we all exist for the individual good. Individual thought and action are assessed on the grounds of the benefit for the individual. Communism and anarchy are the two extremes we face. A just society seems to have a mix of both, even though they are opposites.

When it comes to allowing individual liberties, individual freedom, individual rights, we immediately strike a problem. There are times when the liberty of one individual infringes the liberty of another. I might be free to mow the lawn at 6am in the morning, but then I have infringed the freedom of my neighbor to sleep in. So, the rule of thumb for individual liberty is that my right to liberty must not infringe the liberty of another. My freedom must not restrict the freedom of my neighbor .

So far so good, but the problem comes when someone is acting in a way that infringes the freedom of another. They may be committing a crime or some other antisocial act, and when we attempt to restrict them, to apprehend them, or to punish them (sorry! rehabilitate them), then all of a sudden there is the cry that their civil liberties have been denied. For example, it is argued by many that the authorities shouldn't have the right to tape the telephone conversations of suspected criminals, for to do so infringes their rights to privacy. We shouldn't incarcerate criminals, for this denies them their right to freedom. How do we balance these competing rights?

It does seem at times that civil libertarians make too much of the removal of freedoms from those who have infringed the freedoms of others. My view is that once someone purposely interferes with the freedoms of another, then they immediately lose their own rights to similar freedoms. I give you an example. If someone breaks into your home and steals your Video Recorder, they have not just taken a piece of junk, they have taken many hours of hard work and months of careful saving. They have infringed your freedoms by stealing a substantial slice of your time and energy. The community then has every right to use an appropriate amount of force to stop and apprehend that person and to make that person repay in kind for their unwillingness to respect the civil liberties of others.

One person's freedom can never be allowed to become another person's curse. As the Bible puts it, "Do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil"