Conservatives and liberals in America believe the federal government and state governments are violating citizens’ basic freedoms. For instance, conservatives argue the Obama administration is violating Catholic business owners’ religious freedom by forcing the owners to provide their employees access to contraceptives and abortifacients. Liberals argue many state governments, by legally recognizing only heterosexual marriages, are violating homosexuals’ freedom to marry.
Usually, however, modern democratic governments do not actively deny basic freedoms to their citizens. These governments typically must choose between multiple and conflicting conceptions of freedom.
Modern democracies tend to greatly value freedom. For example, American society was, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “conceived in liberty,” and the Founders enshrined such freedoms as the freedoms of speech and the press in the Constitution.
In many modern democracies, including the United States and the European Union, governments have created many new rights, such as reproductive rights and rights to privacy, to healthcare, and “to not be discriminated against.” These new rights have a price, however. Old freedoms, such as the First Amendment’s freedoms of religion, speech, the press, petition, and assembly are often incompatible with new freedoms. For instance, with the Obama administration’s contraceptive/abortifacient mandate, “reproductive rights” are smothering religious freedom. In another recent example, homosexuals’ freedom to “not be discriminated against” is infringing on Chick-fil-A’s and others’ freedom of speech to promote traditional marriage.
As politicians and others invent or discover more freedoms, there will surely be more conflicts between old and new freedoms. Either these democracies must eliminate or curtail old freedoms such as speech freedom in favor of new freedoms, or stop creating new freedoms that violate old freedoms.
This post also appeared on the New Agora.