Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Liberty vs. Security?

Here's a little amateur political theory for you. This is just some general food for thought, only the frame for a debate. You're welcome to draw your own particular conclusions in your comments, if you like.

Perhaps you've heard of the old idea that, in political systems, liberty and security are inversely proportionate. In other words: as a people's liberty increases, their security must decrease, and as a people's security increases, their liberty must decrease. To put it another way, the citizens of a country may have to accept a more powerful government (= less individual liberty) to secure their collective safety. This is the concept I'd like to discuss. (If this idea is old hat to you, I apologize for this over-simplified rehash).

Probably the first thing that jumps to your mind to illustrate this equation is the Patriot Act. The government gains increased ability to spy on us in order to keep us safe. According to the equation, if we limit the government's power to tap our phone lines or search our emails, we become freer, but less secure. Right now, we're not allowed to take lotion onto an airplane. Lost liberty, right? But more security. These are some simplistic examples of how the idea works.

Have you ever heard anyone say that totalitarian states are more efficiently run and are more capable of securing the safety of individual citizens than are free countries? This idea comes from the liberty vs. security proportion. My dad knew a woman who was a former citizen of Nazi Germany. Once, after hearing Hitler criticized, she protested: "at least in Hitler's Germany you could leave your bike out in the street and no one would take it!" A similar statement is that "Mussolini made the trains run on time." And the laws that Napoleon instituted, for example, have been among the longest-lasting and most stable in France's history. So, citizens of totalitarian states are more secure, but less free, right?

I could continue piling up thoughts and examples that seem to support the liberty vs. security idea, and on a certain level, the proportion is true. We do relinquish "liberties" to secure our safety. But is there another way of thinking about the relationship?

A few observations to complicate the debate:
(1) "Liberty" is a complex idea, perhaps too complex to always fit neatly into an equation. The very concept of liberty already implies law, restraint, and security. Liberty is not the same as anarchy or total licentiousness. For everyone to have liberty, each person's sphere of liberties has to stop where another person's begins. When we understand liberty this way, liberty is not opposed to security at all. I can't have liberty without the law that protects my liberty. The best liberty has just the right mixture of law and order already guaranteed within it.
(2) People need to have a certain level of liberty in the first place in order to safeguard their own security. In the totalitarian states from the examples, there may have been more stability than under a revolution, but no one, not even the toadiest rule-keeper, could be guaranteed security from the arbitrary whims of the dictator and his bureaucracy. In America, we are free under the law even to protect ourselves against factions in our own government: we have the liberty to participate in the legislative process, and even to take the government to court. Private property and the right to bear arms may fit under this second provision as well.

I guess the main thoughts I'd leave you with are these: on some level, we do have to decide what is the right balance between our "rights" and our safety. At the same time, liberty is all-important and all-consuming. Properly understood, liberty for all already contains security for all. You can't have true, dependable security without liberty. (We do have to draw a line, to decide what laws best ensure essential liberty, but I would call it "defining liberty", not "liberty vs. security". From this perspective, we give up the right to carry lotion on planes because we want to ensure liberty and security. It's more than semantics: the idea that liberty and security are somehow opposed is misleading.)

What are the practical implications of all this gobbledy-gook? Not sure. Is it possible to wage a modern-day war without infringing on our citizens' essential liberties, for instance? It should be. Are there any "rights" that we currently prize that shouldn't be protected as essential liberties because they encroach on other people's spheres of liberty and security too much? Your thoughts?


  1. I suppose that most people differ as to which rights are actually "inalienable" and which are more fuzzy.

    While just about everyone believes that restrictions on screaming "fire" in a movie theater or joking about shoe bombs while boarding planes do not violate the 1st Ammendment, I'd wager that most (though certainly not all) who view the Patriot Act is a gross violation of the 4th Ammendment, have no qualms with restrictions on our 2nd Ammendment rights. How many opponents of the Heller decision which revoked DC's handgun ban turn around and criticize Gitmo - even though the vast majority (if not all) of the detainees are not US citizens, nor participants in any treaties which would grant them "inalienable rights"

    The founders believe the right to keep and bear arms was more important than the right to carry lotion, but most who feel that confiscation of said lotion is a constitutional travesty, would see no issue if a person were arrested for bringing a handgun - even if that person had a concealed weapons permit.

    Now I must confess to having little knowledge of the actual text of the Patriot Act - neither do most posting criticisms.

    Unfortunately, the real problem is that most elected officials don't have much idea what the bills they are passing contain.

    When signing Bi-Partisan Campaign Finance Reform into law, President Bush stated that he felt some parts were unconstitutional, but that the courts would sort it out.

    When our legislators and chief executive believe that it is only the courts job to "uphold the constitution", it's no wonder we have so much legislation from the bench.

  2. Sorry if the tail end of that comment deviated from the original topic.