Do this, don't do that

Stephen W. Browne

'The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do.' " Eric Hoffer

I have been thinking a lot lately about that observation by Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher.

I've been thinking about it ever since it occurred to me that one of the differences in American politics that divides us lies largely in that distinction. In general, the right wants more to tell you what not to do, the left wants to tell you what to do.

That's a generalization of course, but I think a valid one.

All government, and religion for that matter, has dos and don'ts. Things to be done or not done considered good for individuals in particular and society in general.

Some of it is arbitrary. Do drive on the right side of the road. Some countries drive on the left side, it doesn't matter which just so long as everyone does the same.

Some of it is pretty important for all of us though. Don't kill other members of society, and don't take their stuff. If people ignore that, pretty soon we don't have a society.

Some of the dos are important and necessary. Do pay your taxes. Do what you said you would when you signed that contract

But I think a free society is one in which the law is more concerned with the don'ts.

Some disagree. Barack Obama once described the Constitution as 'a charter of negative liberties' and expressed a desire for a government that provided more positive stuff like healthcare.

To that end he mandated everyone (with some favored exceptions) buy an insurance policy and the things to be covered by those policies " a long list of dos.

The right favors don'ts more. Don't smoke pot, don't patronize purveyors of illicit pleasure etc. These things are held to be bad for you, even make you a bad person, and to be bad for society in general.

Notice a crucial difference. If you disagree with either of these things, it is almost always easier to get away with breaking the 'don't' laws than the 'do' laws.

If you hold certain behaviors are victimless crimes and harm no one, you can be discrete about them. And if in fact you aren't harming anyone others can exercise a little benign hypocrisy and pretend they don't notice anything. In fact, if there's nothing to notice it probably means you're not harming anyone.

But not furnishing proof of health coverage or not baking that cake ('Do business with everyone who walks in that door!') can't be hidden.

A society that works well enough requires don'ts. Don't kill, cheat, or steal.

But utopia requires dos. Do call anyone who demands it 'ze, zhir, zhey.'

People who want to be left alone are don't people. 'Mind your own business' means 'don't bother me.'

People who want to mind other people's business are do people. 'Do this or you're a bad person!'

Even in matters of religion you'll notice the Ten Commandments has only one 'do this' in the list, 'Honor thy father and thy mother.' The rest are 'don't do these things.' And notice something else about them G.K. Chesterton pointed out.

'The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.'

But these are just idle thoughts so don't take them too seriously and do have a nice day!

A collection of Steve Browne's columns, “The View from Flyover Country: A Rural Columnist Looks at Life” is available on Amazon Kindle.