Liberty and Security Are Not Opposites

In every discussion of government agencies, militarism, privacy, surveillance, torture, or transportation restrictions, we hear an oft-repeated phrase from American founder and generally overrated person Benjamin Franklin:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

While I agree with the sentiment, I think it gives too much credit to the liberty vs. security debate itself.

Why should we assume that liberty and safety are opposites? Are they necessarily in conflict? Must one give ground to other?

Let’s take a look at the substance of the debate and decide.

Defining Terms

First, let’s define our terms. For the sake of clarity, I will use the definitions offered by Google:

Liberty, n. the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.

Security, n. the state of being free from danger or threat.

These definitions need more detail. What, for instance, qualifies as an oppressive restriction? If my behavior or way of life includes violence, does that mean my liberty is curtailed by a prohibition on murder? What constitutes a danger or threat? That’s especially important in how you ultimately answer the question I pose in this post.

For now, I would suggest that the definition of “liberty” above already excludes the “liberty” to oppress, which would be a contradiction in terms. We cannot speak of a liberty to physically harm or threaten or coerce someone, since these would themselves be “oppressive restrictions.”

The Debate and the False Dichotomy

The liberty vs. security debate raises its head every few years. Usually it comes in response to a major public safety crisis like a terrorist attack, a war, a threat of invasion, an epidemic, or an economic crisis.

Individuals are urged to support government measures aimed at greater security and fewer threats from public dangers and threats. Some examples which have all taken place in the past in the US or elsewhere include:

  • Martial law – direct military control of policing – if crime is rampant or an enemy invader is threatening a place.
  • The suspension of habeas corpus – the right to a court trial for arrested persons – in the case of internal political threats
  • The torture or targeted assassinations of citizens who may be engaged in terrorist activity
  • Mass state surveillance to detect and prevent terrorist activity
  • Mass strip-searches and/or full-body pat-downs by government agents as a prerequisite for transportation.
  • Border walls, immigration police, and special documents to track and control who is able to enter and leave a country

All of these laws increase the power of governments at the expense of individual liberty. That much is clear and uncontroversial. The advocates for enhanced government powers will acknowledge this. THey will tell you that there is a necessary tradeoff between security and liberty. “At times like these,” they say, “security must take precedence over liberty.”

But there’s something they’ve failed to point out. And their insistence that liberty and security are dichotomous is part of the problem.

“Those who sacrifice liberty” in measures like the suspension of habeas corpus or the approval of torture methods have given a group of people – the individuals who collectively call themselves the nation-state – the regular right and power to routinely violate person or property. Measures like martial law, militarization of police, government checkpoints, and others violate person or property through physical violation (invasion of space, coercive use of a human body, etc), actual physical danger (caging, tasering, shooting, executing, beating), or the threat of real physical danger.

If this is the case with each new state security measure we pass, can we say that we are more secure as we sacrifice more liberty to the state?

If “security” is as we defined it, and if basic control over your physical body and possessions is something worth securing, than “security measures” like the TSA, NSA, militaries, bureaucracies, and secret CIA prisons are not security measures at all. They are simultaneously destructive of both liberty and security. And with the real insecurity of state “security” not just acknowledged, but codified into law and coercively funded, insecurity becomes a regular part of existence rather than merely a threat.

Nation-states already threaten and destroy peoples’ lives every day in the name of security and social peace, from the mass caging of humans who use drugs and the mass kidnapping of immigrant deportations to the mass killing of bombings and the mass physical molestation of security checkpoints. By sacrificing liberty to the nation-state, individuals are not reducing threats and gaining security. They’re merely choosing and funding the group who will be threatening them and their security from risk of harm. They sacrifice both liberty and security for what, exactly?

The Tribalist Bias Inherent in the Liberty vs. Security Debate

“Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?”

– Mather Byles, Loyalist in American Revolution

If all of this is the case, why do we have the notion of a liberty vs. security dichotomy in the first place? I think tribalism or localism can help to explain this.

In political discussions about liberty and security, people seem to treat a curtailment of liberty (and therefore security) by people who look like them and who (approximately) live close by geographically as something qualitatively different from the same action if performed by someone from a different country or culture.

Consider a hypothetical: how would you react if the Chinese government took power in the United States, staffing government agencies and police departments with Chinese government agents, creating laws to enforce conformity with their agenda, and claiming upwards of 30% of Americans’ wealth as tribute?

You would probably be pissed off, and rightly so.

Yet this is precisely what the United States government does, albeit with people who look like us. In terms of actions, a domestic government usually does little different than an occupying imperial government or army. And if we are to judge actions as moral or immoral based on their content rather than on who performs them, we have to consider the “security-protecting” tyrannical measures of a local government with the same horror we would give the “security threat” of a foreign government or group imposing its will on us.

The Greater the Liberty, the Greater the Security

I reject the dichotomy of security and liberty. This does not mean that either security or liberty are easy to attain. There are choices to make in the pursuit of both, but the fact remains that neither can be had without the other. There is no sacrifice of liberty to security or security to liberty. Liberty is a specific form – the most fundamental form – of security: security in your person. Both liberty and security must increase in proportion to the growth of each other.

So how do we gain greater liberty and greater security? There are things which make for both.

Pursue mutually beneficial relationships with the people around you and the people around the world. Value-for-value exchanges unite, fulfill needs, and reduce the incentive to choose violence. Openness, understanding, and interaction work to prevent the security risk of violent conflict at its root – something which greater military or government powers always fail to do.

Learn how to defend yourself and the people you care about, or come together with other people to voluntarily and freely support group efforts to defend your community from violent actors. Create technologies or systems which make violence impractical, costly, or impossible. From things as mundane as home and business security systems to things as futuristic as force fields, innovation can create greater spheres of liberty and security for everyone.

Again, none of this work happens overnight. None of it guarantees a life without danger or threat. But it is the most clear-headed approach to a principled and consistent security for yourself and the people you care about. You don’t have to join the self-destructive rush to the false security offered by the powerful. You don’t have to a good and peaceful life in the world to be free.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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