Absolute Freedom

Americans regard individual freedom as sacrosanct, but the freedom is not absolute.

This limitation is sometimes hard to accept because of rugged individualism's special hold on the American national psyche.

Nowhere is a backlash to constraints on individual freedom more pronounced than in relation to private property rights. Americans like to think of their home as their castle, a place where ownership bestows an inalienable right to do with their property as they see fit.

But in a democracy, individual rights must be balanced against collective (i.e. societal) rights to avoid veering too far in the direction of either anarchy or totalitarianism.

Individual activities that directly and significantly jeopardize the health and /or welfare of society as a whole are usually subject to prohibitions. It happens with freedom of speech (for instance, you can't with impunity yell "fire" on a whim in a crowded theater.) It happens with Second Amendment rights to bear arms. (A prime example--a recent Florida law prohibits gun owners from engaging in target practice in their own backyards when situated in a densely populated neighborhood) Property rights are also in play in this Florida regulation, no surprise in crowded residential areas.

Again, it is with private property where restrictions have often proved most contentious. Maybe that is because it is easy to forget that modern day law classifies us as temporary custodians, not absolute monarchs, of the land.

That is why owners who have an endangered species on their property are legally barred -without being compensated--from engaging in any activity damaging to the organism's existence. The practical as well as societal importance of preserving the earth's biodiversity, as well as the nation's wildlife heritage, take precedence over any development plans by the owner.

Libertarian-minded conservatives still have a difficult time with limits on individual property rights, which is why they can often be found contesting zoning laws, even when instituted to protect society against severely health-threatening, intrusive, or community-destabilizing activities in general.

A description of their misgivings was succinctly summarized in a 2010 West Virginia newspaper article: "Zoning is coercive. It's arbitrary. It restricts long-lasting well-paying jobs...increases the odds of discouraging business activity...curtails affordable housing, promotes favoritism and corruption...and is costly."

Again, ignored is the flip side of zoning, which is the havoc and possible long term damage that unrestricted private property rights are capable of fomenting.

Democracy must thus stand firm in upholding the tenet that when it comes to absolute individual freedom, absolutely not.