June 28, 2012 —
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, we need to get government the heck off our backs…”
Oh, wait. That’s not how it goes, is it? The actual original clause says, “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…” It’s probably the least noticed, the least remembered, the most neglected clause in the entire preamble of the Declaration of Independence—at least nowadays, when it seems fashionable to regard everything done by government as inimical to freedom.
There’s no question that governments can become dysfunctional (as indeed the English government of the colonies had become in 1776). There’s no question that our own government has become dysfunctional again in certain respects, and it is absolutely the people’s right—as those from whose consent, the Declaration goes on to state, governments derive their just powers—to make our objections heard and attempt to alter things accordingly. But the idea that there is something intrinsic in the idea of government that is threatening to human rights is just dead wrong, at least according to our Founding Fathers. Governments are instituted, on the contrary, to secure rights.
There are some things that we can do for ourselves together that we cannot accomplish separately, and government is the necessary instrument to make that happen. Functions that help secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for us range from providing the law enforcement that creates the conditions for an orderly society, to keeping fires from spreading throughout the community, to building roads, to facilitating the disposal of waste so that it does not poison us, to ensuring that the common resources upon which we all depend for life, like water and air, remain undefiled for all.
The constitutions of the various states spell out the specific powers municipalities within their borders possess to provide such amenities to citizens. A New York State handbook on adopting local laws, for instance, (www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Adopting_Local_Laws_in_New_York_State.pdf ) lists among the benefits that municipalities are charged with protecting “public health in connection with regulation of sanitation, disposal of waste products, interments, cemeteries, keeping of animals; protection of the public from the deleterious effects of industrial and commercial developments, fraudulent sales, weights and measures; proper growth of the municipality through zoning.” And the phrase “health, safety and welfare,” which summarizes those benefits, is one that one sees repeatedly in municipal and land use case law, not only in New York, but all over the country.
It was, accordingly, baffling at the latest meeting of the Town of Delaware to hear one of the board members dismiss with an epithet a townsperson who told them, after the board adopted a resolution that some believe could affect public health, that she would hold them responsible for any adverse health effects that might result (www.riverreporteronline.com/news/16/2012/06/20/delaware-board-resolution... .) It is one thing for a public official to have a difference of opinion with some of his or her constituents about the health impacts of some activity—in this case natural gas drilling. It is quite another to abdicate responsibility when one of them expresses a concern for the impact of a town action on public health.
So though the board is within its rights to pass a resolution that, in its opinion, is not detrimental to public health, it must also recognize in doing so that it most certainly is responsible for the consequences should that opinion prove to be wrong. Every public official in this country is entrusted by our laws, our traditions and our founding documents with the care of their constituents’ health. It is, after all, a key component of the Declaration’s first inalienable right: life. They can’t just blow it off.
Next Wednesday, we celebrate the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The document reminds us that the reason we institute governments and elect public officials in the first place is to secure our rights. At a minimum, we ought to be able to expect our representatives to be concerned with those rights—like the right to life and health—even if they may not agree with us as to the best way to go about it.
It also reminds us that when government starts forgetting its obligations in this respect, “it is our right, it is our duty,” to do something about it.