President George H.W. Bush was a good man with whom I often disagreed, sometimes agreed, but always respected. Back during my active duty military days, I found myself working at the White House and helping out the presidential advance office.
And that is how I found myself in a room at a D.C. hotel, “hosting” former President Bush before he joined President Clinton on stage to talk with a group of business leaders. President Bush told me a funny story, that when he was running for president, his elderly mother — of traditional New England Puritan stock — told her son that he was talking about himself too much in the campaign. It wasn’t, well, modest. He told the story with a smile, but it also showed a bit of his true colors: a man who loved his country and served it to the best of his ability, without insisting on being constantly applauded.
Which, of course, brings me to …
I bet you thought I was going to say Donald Trump, right?
I mean, we’ve never had a president with such a massive ego — demanding to be constantly fed a steady stream of acolyte-ish praise. But no, I am actually talking about the Joint Budget Committee and some guy at Costco. Oh, and rights.
You may have seen the story about the Arvada man who wanted to enter his local Costco without wearing a mask. When told the store required masks, he declared that he “woke up in a free country” and that the video he was shooting on his phone would be put up on Instagram, which would apparently, he thought, somehow make the very polite but firm employee look bad. But as you may have seen, it turned out rather the opposite, and the Costco employee has received near-universal praise.
While most folks understand that wearing masks may be unpleasant, we do it for others, not ourselves. If a person happens to be one of the COVID carriers who are asymptomatic, he or she can spew microdroplets of virus that hang in the air for a ridiculously long time, potentially infecting others, especially older people over 60 like me.
The gent in Arvada confuses right with privilege, and that is a core problem in this country, made especially acute by the pandemic. Far too many Americans are mistaking being inconvenienced with being oppressed. I’m guessing all but the most extreme anti-maskers were wearing pants when they yelped their outrage. They seem to have no fundamental problem with “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” but a mask is somehow too much?
This confusion about rights versus privilege will likely generate a hubbub due to the recent work done by the Joint Budget Committee. This critically important portion of our state legislature has been tasked with finding billions of dollars in cuts to ensure that Colorado meets its requirement for a balanced state budget. With the pandemic decimating the state’s tax and fee income, huge cuts must happen. No one on either side of the political aisle is happy about it, but the bottom line is that there is a bottom line — no deficit.
And so, the JBC voted on Tuesday to temporarily suspend a very popular tax break for seniors and some veterans called the homestead exemption, which reduced property taxes for seniors, for the next three years. The vote was along party lines and there is legitimate room for reasonable people to agree or disagree on this particular cut. But this action does show the profoundly difficult nature of the work the JBC is doing. For many, getting some form of benefit (such as this tax cut) is great when it first happens. But very quickly, in the minds of many, such a benefit becomes a new “right” and to heck with anyone who would deny the people this “right.”
The JBC is a Colorado version of President Bush — working hard, often behind the scenes, to get the work done. They may get less attention than some guy yelling at a clerk in Costco, but they are doing the heavy economic lifting in the current crisis.
The most important declaration regarding where our rights come from is not the Constitution. That august document is merely the contract between the governed and the government. Vital though it is, you will not find the American creed in the Constitution. For that, you must read and embrace Jefferson’s brilliant Declaration of Independence. And the most famous portion of that amazing document refers to unalienable rights, rights that cannot be changed or reduced by our government, such as speech, press, and, well, you know the rest.
But that implies that there are alienable rights — rights that can be shaped and limited by governments. A stop sign is such a limit, as you have no inalienable right to zoom through town without regard to others. And you can be required to follow certain rules placed by private property owners, like Costco, about behaviors in their stores. They can’t ban, say, women (unalienable right) but, you can be required wear a shirt and these days you have to wear a mask, too (alienable right). If you do not accept that rule, you can vote with your feet and buy your pallets of beans elsewhere. Our rights are often in conflict and we cannot all always get what we want.
The Joint Budget Committee must now come up with massive cuts in spending. Some will think they have had their rights reduced. And while we must always be wary of such actions, the concept of such governance is not wrong. Your rights are not at risk at Costco or any other business requiring masks. Freedom isn’t easy, and it isn’t a bumper sticker. It’s hard and sometimes uneven, but it is vital. And please, wear pants.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.