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Freedom of the Individual [*]

This story takes place in a small town somewhere in middle America. The laws of the town had been written years ago and had been based on absolutes. i.e. “This is right and that is wrong.” Over the years, many of the laws and the reasoning behind them slowly faded from relevancy. Among these were laws regarding the prohibition of alcohol and prostitution within city limits. Although alcohol still couldn’t be sold within the city, drinking became a regular occurrence. Many of the gatherings where the drinking took place were held at the town hall. Even the mayor made an appearance from time to time. Prostitution was still frowned upon but a “massage parlor” thrived just outside the boundaries of the city. Occasionally, the town police would enforce the laws because they were, after all, the law, but the enforcement was seemingly random and often annoying. So one day the mayor called a town meeting to discuss the rewriting of these and other laws so that they could be consistently enforced.

This was obviously a big deal and so the entire town, from the street boys to the town doctor, met that night in the town hall. The mayor called everyone to order and then the meeting commenced. Everyone was permitted to speak but only one person at a time. 

The pastor of the church was the first to speak, “I don’t see anything wrong with the laws as they are. We just need to enforce them, all the time. The laws exist to protect us.” One voice from the back spoke up, “Oh, hush up you old man. No one cares about your old fashioned ways. They are old and dying just like you and your kind!” At this, Mr. Johnson, one of the storekeepers stood up. “Well, I don’t know about completely throwing out all of the old laws. But we obviously have different ideas about what’s right and wrong and it seems a little dumb to me to enforce laws that most of us don’t agree with. How ’bout we change the laws to allow for differences in values? I, for one, don’t like the 10pm curfew. If we changed it to 12pm or just got rid of it, I would have more business.” Another shopkeeper shouted, “Yeah, and what about alcohol? If I could sell alcohol and stay open later, I think we’d all benefit!” After both shopkeepers were finished, Mrs. Fetters, a school teacher who was also a mother spoke up, “I like the curfew. I am afraid that if the children are permitted to stay out late or are kept awake by the late night noises, they won’t be rested enough to concentrate on schoolwork. A few adults could benefit from the extra sleep too for that matter.” Mr. Buckley, an electrician, immediately protested, “Hold on now, young lady. Curfews are fine for you and your kids, but who are you to tell me what to do?” Lots of murmurs came from the crowd.

The mayor, sensing that things might quickly get out of hand, silenced everyone for a moment. “Okay, okay, everyone. How does this sound to all of you? We don’t have time to detail everything right here in this meeting, but how ’bout we do as Mr. Johnson suggested a moment ago? I propose that each person will be required to abide by the law that they believe is appropriate to them. Since you all know what you believe in, you can hold yourselves accountable. Mrs. Fetters and the other parents who agree with a curfew for their family will have to abide by a curfew. Mr. Johnson and anyone else who believes that a curfew is actually a hindrance, will not have to abide by a curfew.” Again, there were murmurs in the crowd, but mostly murmurs of approval. “Okay, but what about alcohol within city limits,” came one voice, “can we change that law too for those that want to drink?” The mayor looked around the room to see how the townspeople reacted before answering, “Yes, that seems to be acceptable.” Several people clapped and hollered!

The meeting went on like this for several hours before the townspeople began to tire. The mayor adjourned the meeting but asked everyone to return the following night to continue the discussion. They all met every night for a week. No amount of time would have been sufficient to address every single variance to the law, but by the end of the last meeting the townspeople were nearly all in agreement with the new laws. There were a few dissenters including the pastor and a few of the parents, but the majority won out.

Here is just a sample of some of the laws that the townspeople came up with: Regular folk could not steal, but the homeless and extremely poor were allowed to steal small amounts at a time for survival purposes. Everyone had to continue to drive on the right side of the road (since that is how it’s done in America), but individuals could decide on the best speed limit for them according to their vehicle and driving skills. Open marriages were permitted as long as both spouses agreed. Men were not permitted to display physical affection with each other in public but could do so in private and talk about it freely in public as long as young children were not present. Newspapers and other public media entities were entitled to lie as long as they were not big lies. Store owners and other advertisers were not allowed to lie at all, but were permitted to sell unsafe products as long as they stopped selling them after someone complained.

In actuality, these were all guidelines. The townspeople, or at least the majority, agreed that individuals were free to go outside of these guidelines if they saw it fit to do so. They abolished all absolutes. So, some “regular folk” stole, some men slept with other women without their spouse’s consent, and some children stayed out late despite their family’s curfew. Occasionally, someone would get hurt from someone else’s failure to stay within the guidelines, but no one dared to make a fuss about such events lest the majority change their mind and go back to absolutes again, thus removing this newly gained freedom.

For the most part, all got along very well in the town for quite some time. Everyone adapted to the new way of doing things. Some people who had originally decided on certain guidelines for themselves were slowly persuaded by those around them that perhaps they were being too rigid on themselves and missing out on something. Less and less married people stayed faithful to their spouse and more and more people drank alcohol, among other things.

One night, the townspeople had a big party at the town hall. Everyone was invited and nearly everyone came. There was much eating, drinking, and dancing. Men and women mingled freely with each other and there was much revelry. Most of the children were at home sleeping since even the wildest of parents felt that the party was simply not appropriate for young eyes and ears.

One man, Lester, who had perhaps enjoyed the new freedom the most of all the townspeople, was at the party. He got drunk with everyone else but made his way out of the town hall while the festivities were still in full swing. He staggered down the street until he came to the home of the mayor and his family. The mayor and his wife were at the party but their two daughters were asleep in the home. Despite his inability to walk a straight line, Lester managed to enter the mayor’s home and locate the bedroom of the mayor’s two young daughters. … Lester committed an atrocity against both girls but left them alive.

Although Lester’s act was done during the secrecy of night, it did not remain a secret for very long. The mayor and his wife were naturally saddened and furious at the same time. They wanted justice! And swiftly! But what were they to do? There was no longer any law against what Lester had done. So, they called another town meeting.

If you were to go to that town meeting, what would you have to say? Would you move to reenact the old laws, or at least some of them, and risk losing your own freedom? Would you keep your mouth shut because it was none of your business what someone else did to someone else’s children? If you would propose some minimal set of absolutes such as “no one is allowed to murder”, what would be the basis of your proposed absolutes? What if someone suggested that there is a valid case against your “absolutes”?

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