You Can’t Tell Me What To Do


Back in colonial days there was a powerful and well-grounded fear and loathing of central authority, this stemming from very bad experiences with King George III.  He had a habit of controlling the lives of the colonists in ways they did not appreciate and they fundamentally disliked being told what to do.

Following the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation was the binding document among the 13 states.  It allowed for a pitiful central government that was barely able to function because nearly all power was in the hands of the states in the name of “states rights.”  The Articles of Confederation was so puny that General George Washington balked at it.  Ten years later the Constitution was hammered out and it gave the central government the muscle it needed to do what central governments must do.

They called it “states rights” another time and the Civil War erupted.  Of course, the economic costs and social issues of slavery and its abolishment were the heart of the dispute, but there was a powerful rebellion against authority that helped to fuel passions.  That passion lives on today in the hearts of those who call the Civil War the “Northern War of Aggression.”  That battle – the “you can’t tell me what to do” resistance – has continued unbroken, not just in the south, and today it has become nearly as virulent as at any time in our history.  Indeed, it is the ultimate wedge issue.

Since President Obama took office the Republicans have primarily been a stop sign even to things they formerly proposed, endorsed and co-sponsored.  The result has been legislative stagnation in the face of enormous national need.  What is even more telling is the language that has accompanied their obstruction.  It can be simply described as, “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Most recently the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act has elicited histrionic claims of a war on religion and violation of the First Amendment.  The proudly independent types bellow that the government can’t tell them what to do and it most certainly can’t tell their church anything, either.  Let this example be a placeholder for a key cause of the resistance to reform of anything in Washington and it will be pretty close to the center of the bulls eye.

Surely, there is room for discussion about the implications of requiring institutions owned or run by churches (not the churches themselves) to include birth control in their health care insurance plans for employees.  Suggesting that this is a war on religion, though, is hyperbolic nonsense and stubbornly railing against authority raises the question yet again:  Can the government tell us what to do?

Irrespective of your personal preferences, the government says that you may not own a nuclear weapon.  The government requires you to stop at stop signs.  The government says that you may not poison your neighbor’s dog even if he barks through the night (the dog, not the neighbor).  The government says that if you run a meat packing plant that you must follow rules of cleanliness and you can’t include in your sausage the rat that fell into the kettle.

The point is that we have laws and regulations because, as the saying goes, your absolute freedom stops at the tip of my nose.  That means that we must have some agreement about what each of us may do, what each of us may not do and what all of us must do in order to have a civil society and to arrange for what is best for all of us.  That comes at some expense to each of us, surely in the abridgment of our absolute freedom.  The absence of those laws, though, would be far worse than the presence of them.  The trick, of course, lies in finding the middle ground that serves best.

So, yes, Virginia, the government can tell you what to do.  You have the right to not like it.  You have the right to attempt to change the laws.  And you have the right to obey the laws or suffer the consequences of violating them.

But for those who want to push back against anything Obama, please be considerate of the 80% of Americans who don’t want to hear histrionics like “war on religion,” nor do we want to hear the latest installment of “You can’t tell me what to do.”  The battle that has real value is the battle for the kind of America we want this to be for all Americans, not just the impassioned, vocal few.

“Remember that knowing a tomato is a fruit is knowledge, but knowing not to put it into a fruit salad is wisdom.”       Dan Keding


Copyright 2021 by Jack Altschuler
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