Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Our Constitutional Rights (My Last Discussion with Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune)

Though it is printed here, I chose not to respond to Eric Zorn’s final discussion on his Tribune blog. I told him that beginning with his second post, he began to use tabloid thinking, causal oversimplification, faulty analogy, straw man, and non sequitur… that if the Chicago Tribune reneged on his current contract, he would understand a different point of view…

To Glen:

Discussing future pension obligations with you is like discussing proposed restrictions on gun rights with an NRA member: Every answer invokes the constitution – the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in their case, the pension clause in the Illinois Constitution in yours – and avoids the request for a common-sense analysis of compromise reforms.

I asked what’s objectionable, morally or ethically, about the idea of honoring all pension obligations for past service, but renegotiating the future pension benefits that will be based on future service, much as salary and other terms of employment are renegotiated.  Your answer: The state constitution forbids it.

I asked whether these pension deals were ever good deals for taxpayers – transparent, market based and actuarially responsible -- and if they remain good deals for taxpayers today. Your answer: Doesn’t matter. The state constitution renders such speculation moot.  [I never said this].

We agree that irresponsible legislators turned a potential problem into a looming crisis by skipping pension payments to in effect pay their bills with money from the future. And that now the future is here, so we’re going to have to raise taxes to make good on our obligations.

But at the suggestion of a compromise re-definition of those obligations going forward, in order to minimize the potentially metastatic impact of significant tax increases on citizens and businesses, your answer remains the same. And your allies on the comment threads rage that any other answer amounts to teacher bashing, union bashing and a Wisconsin-esque attempt to divide working people.

If these truly are the battle lines, I’m afraid this policy fight’s going to get ugly.
Eric Zorn

To Eric:

What we call rights of individuals is bound up with the theory and precepts of social and political justice we adopt (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty).  When legislators swear an oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions, then citizens of Illinois and the United States have also acquired the right to expect that they will uphold that pledge. This is also a matter of important moral concern for all citizens of Illinois, for all legal claims will be validated by a moral framework since the concept of justice is grounded in ethics. If citizens’ legal rights are abused, then their dignity and humanity will also be violated.
Rights and obligations are logically correlative. In other words, a citizen’s rights imply or complement the legislators’ obligation to guarantee them. The keeping of promises is the General Assembly’s legal duty. It is something the U.S. Constitution requires them to do whether they want to or not. Unfortunately, many legislators will act without moral principles, even though “claims of rights [are] prima facie or presumptively valid-standing claims” (Tom Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics).
If policymakers do not take individual rights seriously but prefer to challenge them in a court of law, then we can assume they will not take any of their other laws seriously either. All citizens of the State of Illinois have legal justification for their rights and benefits. The foundation of their rights and benefits is the state and U.S. constitutions that directly support any claims against them.
“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override… It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by the many. Therefore, in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests” (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice).  
To possess a right to a promised benefit, such as a pension, is to assert a legitimate claim on all Illinois legislators to protect that right. There are no rights without obligations. They are mutually dependent. We both know state contracts are also protected by the federal government as well (Article 1, Section 10 of the United States Constitution).
The significant issue of today and tomorrow is the relationship between a teacher’s right to an earned, constitutionally-guaranteed defined-benefit pension and the legislators’ obligation to safeguard that promise. An unconscionable constitutional challenge of teachers’ rights and benefits will generate a serious threat to their secure sense of worth as citizens and create the unfair possibility for an economic disadvantage for one particular group of people and their families. This cannot be morally or legally justified.
glen brown

For an in-depth discussion about constitutionality, please read "Illinois Pension Reform... Is Without Legal and Moral Justification"


  1. Kudos, Glenn. And thank you for all of your time and efforts expended on our behalf against the small minded media swill that has as its cause to destroy our profession.

  2. To Zorn -

    I should like to end Glen's last paragraph with this addition.

    To suggest otherwise is not, Eric, teacher-bashing, union bashing or Wisconsin-esque, nor is it pertinent. You call it a policy; you’re in error there. It is not simply a policy or tradition – it is law. As for going forward, the state has already performed that unseemly and inequitable act upon those who did or will consider teaching in Illinois after 2011. Now you decry my attempts to remind you of our legislators’ responsibilities to myself and others with whom they have entered into legal arrangements and contractual agreements. While I demand my own protection against willful and arbitrary changes in law, I also protect you, Eric. You’re welcome.