Rights, Responsibilities

A DELICATE balance has somehow been lost in today's society: Individuals are demanding respect for their rights while being less forthcoming in their acceptance of responsibility - to the detriment of the larger community.

Criminal defendants insist on their right to trial by jury, for instance, yet people's unwillingness to serve on a jury is such that in some jurisdictions the flow of cases through already dangerously clogged courts is further slowed.

The broad term for those concerned with issues such as this is communitarians. Their agenda has caught the attention of President Clinton and other political figures.

The communitarians speak to the polity's constitutional responsibility to ``form a more perfect union.'' They want, for instance, to encourage schools to teach ``values'' by focusing on values that can be shared even within a pluralistic society, rather than focusing on what divides different groups.

As Robert Bellah and his co-authors note in their book, ``The Good Society,'' it can be difficult nowadays to connect the good that individuals do as individuals with the good done by institutions. Yet to thrive, society needs institutions that can do good.

The communitarians' discussion deserves to be heeded. They are not majoritarians, nor do they oppose civil liberties or individual rights. Indeed, in ``The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda,'' Amitai Etzioni has written, ``Those most concerned about rights ought to be the first ones to argue for the resumption of responsibilities.''

The communitarians are not antifeminist, either: This must be noted, since discussions about yielding ambitions for personal fulfillment to the larger good often have as their subtext, ``Women should stay home with the kids.'' Mr. Etzioni and others are explicit that responsibility for children lies with both parents.

The communitarians also argue that judicious yielding of autonomy can be the best way to forestall authoritarianism.

Certainly explicit individual rights have vastly expanded, growing out of legislative action and judicial decisions over the years: from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Freedom of Information Act to the laws that require wheelchair-accessible drinking fountains. And new modes of transportation and communication mean that each individual cuts a wider swath through the world. With more people moving farther and faster, possible points of collision between individuals' rights increase.

Those conflicts need mediation by elements and institutions working for the larger good, often through nonlegal remedies and relying on moral suasion.

Take ``hate speech'' codes on university campuses, for instance: In the case of a conflict between one's right to free speech and one's right not to be insulted on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, the answer may lie not with a code that flirts with danger to the First Amendment, but in moral suasion that makes clear that such insults, while legal, are morally unacceptable.

However one feels about the communitarians' proposals on specific issues, their overall discussion is a helpful framework for considering a number of issues affecting practical governance of a civil society.

A disequilibrium between rights and responsibilities has derailed the political process: Too many things can't be said, e.g., ``If we want more government services [rights], we're going to have to pay more in taxes [responsibilities].'' So the focus shifts from the practically effectual to the politically feasible. The recent passage of the much-amended Brady gun-control bill is a good example: Better for Congress to have passed it than not, but even its advocates don't suggest it will help cut crime much.

Our own conclusions:

* Individual rights are never to be signed away casually. The tradeoffs involved when we are asked to yield personal liberty - to submit to seat-belt laws or police roadblocks to check for drunken drivers - for the sake of the common good need scrutiny. We suspect that the more public responsibility is actively taken, the less will be the pressure to give up individual rights.

* We must learn to calibrate the instruments of social policy to discourage certain behavior while not being unduly harsh on those who get caught, for whatever reason, in that behavior anyway. We should consider what can be done, for instance, to make divorce difficult enough to encourage troubled couples to stick it out, but not so difficult that people cannot escape abusive relationships.

* Community leaders - including politicians, the press, and the clergy - must make the most of moral suasion to discourage some behaviors and encourage others. They first must be clear in their own minds that not every behavior that is legal is good. And more of us need to assume the role of community leaders, from whatever humble station in life.

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