Rights Theory, Liberty

Liberty or Security?

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.

Published on:
Author: Bas van der Vossen
  • Mike Sturm

    To be sure, security and liberty do not seem, upon investigation, to be antithetical. In fact, it seems to me that the more secure one is (in various respects), the more free one is to do the things they wish to do. To talk, then, of trading liberty for security is a bit primitive and vague, if applicable at all.

    I wonder, however, if this comment really hits the mark:

    “Your freedom to open a business is security against having to please ‘the community’, government bureaucrats, or whomever…. Your freedom to choose your occupation is protection against horrible work environments.”

    After all, once you do open a business, as you are free to do, you do throw yourself at the mercy of “the community”. After all, who do you expect to buy your goods or services? You must either already be respected by the community, or have a value proposition that they respect, in order for your business to provide you a living. As for the freedom to choose your occupation, it is hard to see that as anything but a freedom in name only. Surely, a man with only a high school graduation freely chose to work at a West Virgina coal mine (in the very weakest sense of the word “free”). But whether or not it is what he would truly like to be doing for a living, his bills remain in need of payment, and his family remains in need of food and shelter. As the coal mine operators allow safety measures to go unenforced, and as they continue to underpay workers (perhaps even telling them that if they don’t like it, they can look for another job), it seems less clear how the workers’ rights to choose their occupation does any work to guarantee a good work environment. If anything, both rights are restricted by the need to ensure their own economic security. The bottom line is that a right becomes vacuous if the only way to exercise it is to sacrifice myriad other valuable things so doing. If the coal miners’ right to chose their jobs does guarantee protection against horrible conditions, but they would have to sacrifice a great deal of basic goods in order to get that protection, in what way is it guaranteed?

    Perhaps I’ve zeroed in on a single brushstroke to critique rather than the larger painting, but I believe that my thread of thought can apply to the larger question of trading off rights in general. I think this is something that Hobbes was really concerned with in the comparison of the state of nature to an actual state. People will (he argues) trade off their complete freedom to do as they wish if it means some basic guarantee of security. But that guarantee of security comes from limits placed on the freedoms of others. In that sense, it seems that there is a direct exchange between liberty and security. But it is worth asking whether, in the state of nature, people really did have the complete freedom to do as they wish, in any practicable sense. For to exercise the freedom they were said to have, they would have to face such daunting opposition that the freedom they did have seems to have been vacuous. Something like this is at least true in the case of the miners, especially if their general surroundings are more poverty and more employers paying low wages and making little guarantee of good conditions. This seems to point to a minimum level of security guarantees for any liberty to be real liberty at all. But perhaps once that minimum level of security is guaranteed, any further guarantees of security will work to restrict rights, rather than guarantee that they can be exercised.

    • martinbrock

      After all, once you do open a business, as you are free to do, you do throw yourself at the mercy of “the community”.

      Exactly. When did “community” become synonymous with “government bureaucrats”? Do I really need another word for “friends and neighbors” now?

  • martinbrock

    Needless to say, states don’t care what anyone else considers morally available, so the only meaningful question is what their subjects will tolerate, not what we call “moral”.

    In the easily foreseeable future, certainly within my life expectancy, surveillance devices the size of an insect could and presumably will exist everywhere that insects exist. State sponsored research in this direction is a matter of public record.

    Believing that such devices already buzz around you secretly requires only a little paranoia. They almost certainly will buzz around your children, and expecting some libertarian state to protect anyone from them is laughably ridiculous. The state will develop them and be the first to deploy them, and states will also develop insect sized drones with lethal capacity and insect sized drones to destroy other insect sized drones, and so on. The only question is: what can anyone else do about it?

  • John Alexander

    It seems to me that the issue comes down to what can’t we do today that we could do yesterday? I can still use my cell phone, internet, etc. today, as I could yesterday. My freedom to do so has not been curtailed. Today, as opposed to a week ago, I know that the NSA has a record of my calls, etc., so today I make the choice to use, or not use, technology based, in part, on that new information. But, it does not appear that my freedom to act has been restricted. What am I missing?

    • Nathanael


  • Isn’t the trade-off between liberty and security something like this: you give up a right against the government (and in that way lose some freedom) but you gain increased protection of your rights against other people (and in that way have other freedoms better secured)?

    • martinbrock

      Is that a trade-off between liberty and security or a trade-off between liberty and privilege?

  • j_m_h

    What never seems to be really acknowledged in the old claim of trading freedom/liberty for security is that in ALL the countries in which these freedoms were sacrificed to the extent we’re getting to few if any of the people enjoyed real security. They faced dangers from both external societies that feared expansion and they faced dangers from the very government that claimed to be giving them security.

    History seems to suggest the trade off, at best, is not a monotonic function, and possibly far from an accurate description at all.

  • Fernando Teson

    Bas, nice post. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I made a similar point (liberty and security are not antithetical) in my piece “Liberal Security,” in R. Wilson, ed. Human Rights in the “War on Terror” (CUP, 2005), p. 57. I have no evidence that anyone has ever read it, but maybe your post will change that.

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  • Kevin

    Bas wrote: “In many ways liberty and security are not antithetical values”

    Liberty and security are never really antithetical. The only purpose of security is to protect our rights, so the dilemmas that arise are always a competition of liberties or rights, namely: “When does protecting one liberty (e.g. right to life, enforced as a nation) justify sacrificing another liberty (e.g. confiscating taxes to pay for national defense)?”

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