Government has to balance freedom, safety

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Many of us have laughed when late night talk shows joke, “I am from the government, and I am here to help.”

While this saying takes a light-hearted crack at government’s reputation for often overstepping its bounds and meddling in the small details of our lives, it also brings up important questions about just how far government should stretch its authority.

One of the primary responsibilities of our local, state and federal leaders is public safety. For instance, when you drive down the street, you should be reasonably sure that it is safe, or if you buy medication from a pharmacy or food at the grocery store, the government should assure you that it is all right to use. However, there is a fine line between enforcing public safety and respecting individual freedom.

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If you look through some of our nation’s most sacred documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — it doesn’t take long to realize that in the United States, we value our freedom. While freedom gives us the ability to speak our minds and write what we choose, it also includes the possibility of getting hurt, making bad choices or failing. In other words, with freedom comes personal responsibility. Freedom offers opportunity for success, not a guarantee. In fact, Benjamin Franklin once said, “The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.”

The question becomes, can and should the government protect us from every danger or must we use our own judgment to protect ourselves and our families? Many times, the respect for freedom and the concern for public safety conflict, and we must decide as public officials how best to handle the situation. It is also an issue of government regulations, which can sometimes infringe on our personal liberties. I have been fairly critical of some state agencies because of nonsensical regulations. As you may recall, in a recent column about the Ohio Coal Summit, I talked about some of the struggles Ohio’s coal industry has gone through to get approved for a mining permit. One witness recalled a time when, in preparation of a mine site, a truck’s tire track became an ephemeral stream and, as a result, had to be monitored by the state bureaucracy to protect any tadpoles and surrounding weeds.

However, with this criticism of government regulation and bureaucracy, I must be willing to face the same critique as a legislator. In terms of balancing concerns over public safety with protecting individual freedom, I consistently voted against red-light cameras because I felt they were a public intrusion, while red-light camera advocates say it is a matter of public safety. I have also voted against primary enforcement of Ohio’s seat belt law as a way to protect motorists, while public safety advocates say it would save lives.

On the other hand, I have sponsored legislation to regulate the operation of fireworks stores. These establishments are public places, and if a mom or dad takes their child into the store, they should have a reasonable expectation that it is safe. In addition, I sponsored legislation that regulated the use of pseudphedrine, because if left unchecked, it put the general public at risk. These are two examples of the government establishing public safety guidelines where the individual does not have the ability to make the decision on their own.

There is often a fine line between the government’s role in issues of public safety and what should be left up to the individual to decide. And, with so many differing opinions, this is a topic that will continue to receive considerable debate.

Sen. John A. Carey represents Ohio’s 17th District.