The recent news about so-called NSA surveillance programs brought back a familiar argument. Liberty and security, we are told, need to be balanced or traded off against each other. People on different sides of this debate help themselves to this image. Some (well really, more and more people) use it to claim that some of our liberty should be sacrificed at the alter of security. Others, often invoking Benjamin Franklin’s famous line, use the same argument to resist these programs.
Whether you endorse or fear the NSA’s activities, this talk of trading off freedom for security or a need to “balance” the two is really not helpful. Here are two reasons.
Suppose that there is a genuine tension between liberty and security. Does that mean we can simply trade off one for the other? Does it mean a balance (whatever that might mean) ought to be struck between the two? Not necessarily. Most of the freedoms at stake here are rights-protected freedoms – or at least they ought to be. As a rule, rights-protected things cannot be simply traded off for other valuable things.
So even if we could purchase more security with the currency of liberty (more on that in a moment), such a move may simply not be morally available. Quite frequently the rights of others get in the way of what we want. And quite frequently we want the things we do for good reason. But that does not take away from the importance of these rights. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Of course it is possible that the value of security is an exception to this rule. But that needs an argument, one we are yet to hear. I guess that the most promising line of thought here would be that we not only have rights to our freedom, but also a right to security? Maybe this is true. But security is a gradual thing. So you really ought to say we have a right to this much security. Which brings up the question: do we have a right to a little more security than we are enjoying right now? Again, we need to hear an argument why. Simply talking about trading off one value against the other won’t do.
But there is perhaps a more fundamental reason to resist this talk of trade offs and balancing acts. In many ways liberty and security are not antithetical values. Secure societies are free societies, and free societies are secure societies. Rights of due process, requirements that police and security agencies obtain warrants before infringing our privacy, the principle of habeas corpus are indeed often called protections of liberty. But their main function is to provide citizens security against another real source of threat: government power. (It is a depressing fact that we know of more examples of abuses of these powers than examples of prevented acts of terrorism.)
Much the same is true outside of the context of standard civil liberties. Freedom in general protects us against threats and harms. Your freedom to open a business is security against having to please “the community”, government bureaucrats, or whomever. Your freedom to own your property is protection against being continually at the mercy of the demands of others. Your freedom to choose your occupation is protection against horrible work environments. And so on.
So it is not just that individual freedom is too important to be balanced against the desire for more security – although that too is surely true. It is also that freedom is instrumentally necessary for, and constitutive of security. You simply cannot get the one without the other.
Oh, and if all that doesn’t sway you, perhaps the views of this guy will.