Numinations — December, 1999

Artistic License

© 1999, by Gary D. Campbell

There are two words in the phrase “artistic license.” “Artistic” ties into Freedom of Speech. “License” is something that you seek from others, usually the government. To most people the phrase simply means a special freedom granted to artists, but to me it evokes a larger topic: Freedom versus government.

Is this dialectical tension only resolved by an either/or solution, or does a synthesis lead to a better solution? Can we really have freedom without government? If a little bit of freedom is good, is more of it better? If a lot of government is bad, is a little of it still bad? How much of these do we really want?

Our government probably offers us a greater degree of freedom than any other in the world that governs as large and pluralistic a country. But one person being a little “too free” often crosses the line to trespass on another. Over the course of time, people have found that control is necessary to curtail the free behavior of one person from violating the rights of others. This control may stem from physical force, fear, peer pressure, rules, or morality. In fact, it could be argued that it took these very steps as we evolved from savages into citizens, or developed from children into adults.

All of the things we think of today as “natural rights” are freedoms that were unavailable to most of our ancestors throughout our long and bloody past. Our rights stem from a list of freedoms that our forebears agreed should be granted equally to each citizen. These freedoms cannot be separated from the power that guarantees them.

In our society, that higher power is the government. And you have two choices: You can accept the contract as it is written in the laws and constitution and interpreted by the courts and by convention, or you can reject it and run the risk of fines and imprisonment, or at the very least, alienation. With a choice like this, most of us accept government. Some of us willingly, others of us grudgingly. But it’s always worth asking the question: “How much government do we really need?” Here are two people’s opinions that bear on the subject.

Emerson: The less government we have, the better.

Einstein: Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

In civilized society, the government is vested with the degree of might necessary to control all groups that could threaten it. The hope is that government will somehow be responsive to the will of the majority and, at the same time, protective of the smallest minority. That it will provide security for all of its citizens and arbitrate the inevitable disputes that arise between them. And, that it will set up laws and regulations that forestall many of the possible disputes in the first place.

I believe we have enough government when it can accomplish this job. We have too much government when it goes beyond this to other jobs that are simply “good ideas.” We need good ideas. We need to act on them, too. But, government should focus on its basic charter, its constitution, and leave the good ideas to other institutions.

Government needs to be a great power with a narrow focus. The power of government needs to be spread out, not put into the hands of a few. Thomas Jefferson felt that the people were “the safest, though perhaps not the wisest, depository of the public interests.”

Government, in today’s world, needs to exist on three levels: An international level, a national level, and a local level. Local levels consist of people interacting with people and can be run as true democracies. At the national level, a representative government works better. True democracy cannot function when the people are unable to interact face to face. International government functions on the basis of alliance and treaty. If there is a better way, we are still working to evolve it.

There are two ways that an individual should have a voice in government. One is through a vote. The other is through direct participation. Things get decided by votes, but things get done by participation. In between, things get talked, shouted, sung, and written about.

Countries are formed from societies of people. Countries are citizens of a world jungle. In a jungle, might makes right. Civilized countries interact according to treaties and agreements. Uncivilized countries behave as they desire and should be treated in whatever manner proves necessary.

The behavior of an individual, organization, or country is shaped by the pressures brought to bear by his, her, or its peers. First and foremost, pressures are designed to affect people’s beliefs. Civilized countries communicate and trade with one another; uncivilized countries threaten and war with one another. These are the civilized and uncivilized ways that pressure can be applied between countries. Between individuals, pressures involve the exercise of various forms of freedom. Civilized people exercise freedom with restraint.

One of the most basic of freedoms is the freedom of speech. People have gotten themselves burned at the stake, stoned to death, shot for treason, incited riots, led nations to war, and started revolutions by speech alone. Even today, the exercise of this freedom can easily get you fired from your job, blacklisted by an organization, or ostracized by the politically correct.

Should people have the right to say absolutely anything? At any volume? At any time and place? Should others have the right to take unlimited or unreasonable offense? In a courtroom, the judge is responsible for fairness to both parties. Freedom of speech is extremely important to the courtroom process. A judge will typically curtail this freedom when the probative value of some testimony is outweighed by its inflammatory nature. This principle is being applied, in effect, when the freedom to yell “fire” in a crowded theater is denied.

The limits of free speech should have something to do with quantity and quality. Noise ordinances and similar measures (even supply and demand) can control quantity, but quality and its effects are harder to judge. Quality involves both the value of the speech and any offense it might give. Quality is not measured by the speaker, nor even by a given listener. Generally we apply the standards of a typical and reasonable listener, not just any easily offended individual. If there are reasonable ways to tune out or ignore another’s expressions, we should allow that which goes beyond the offensive even while it falls short of the contributive. And, the reverse is also true.

Minorities, even minorities of one, have both rights and responsibilities. These are granted or assigned by others, but ultimately they are guaranteed by force. That force has been vested in individuals and various kinds of governments throughout history. Ours was intended to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our government must maintain a division and balance of its powers and be responsive to the will of the majority of its people, while being equally responsive to the rights of its minorities.

The will of the majority and the rights of minorities are fundamental to our way of life. The converse is not true. Minorities may peacefully attempt to become a majority, but action should stem from will, and will should always stem from the majority. But, even the will of the majority should not be allowed to assign any minority a different set of rights or freedoms than another.

Finally, under the security part of its charter, our government should be fiscally responsible. The guiding principles of how a government should tax and spend are simple. If you need more of something, subsidize it. If you need less of something, tax it. If you want your economy to run smoothly, then change your rules slowly and in very small steps.

I’m damned glad that artists don’t actually need licenses, that people can speak freely in this country, and that we are still able to pull together faster than we are splintering apart. I believe we will find solutions to our problems and will even go on to encounter bigger ones, keeping alive the tradition of nostalga that our descendants will one day feel for the simpler times of today.

Although protected by Copyright, the author grants permission to reprint this article in a non-profit publication, or copy it over the Internet, with its Title, Copyright, and this notice. Notification to the author and courtesy copies of the publication would be appreciated. For other publication, please contact the author.