Illusion Of Security

The Trade-Off Between Security and Liberty

The sweeping security measures that have been demanded in the aftermath of 9/11, and that are now embedded in political discourse, are founded on an illusion. Using the “trade-off” between security and liberty to justify these measures infringes on civil liberties, compromises the rule of law, and damages society as a whole.

What is security?

Security is freedom from, or resilience against, the threat of harm. The beneficiaries of security may be persons and social groups, corporations or institutions, ecosystems or other entities and phenomena vulnerable to unwanted change. Security can also be defined in terms of preventing damage or disruption to a resource, such as a chlorine bank used to protect against a pandemic.

It is common in times of war or national emergency to restrict civil liberties in order to deal with the threat. However, this knee-jerk reaction is both normatively wrong and pragmatically dangerous. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “they that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither freedom nor safety.”

A policy framework should be developed that ensures liberty is a central aim of security. To do this, it is necessary to reframe the debate over how liberty and security go together. To begin, it would be useful to define what is meant by security in a way that can help guide policymakers and the general public.

What is liberty?

Liberty is freedom from oppressive restrictions that are imposed on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views. This includes freedom to spend time with whomever we want, go wherever we want, and work or study the way we desire. Liberty also means freedom from discrimination based on race, religion, or gender.

There are two concepts of liberty – negative and positive – and both are important to understand as we weigh trade-offs between security and liberty. Negative liberty is defined by the extent to which we could act without interference or obstruction, while positive liberty is a more comprehensive concept that encompasses the full range of a person’s rights and opportunities, all within a fair legal system.

It is tempting to sacrifice liberty in the name of security, especially since the crime rate is usually higher in places that treat liberty poorly. However, doing so will not actually make us any safer. Liberty and security must always go hand in hand.

What is the trade-off between the two?

The notion of a trade-off between security and liberty is often used to justify measures that infringe upon fundamental rights. Nevertheless, it is not valid to claim that the mere existence of security threats necessitates such trade-offs.

Sweeping security measures offer little practical payoff and come at the cost of reducing citizens’ privacy, contributing to a sense of fear and insecurity in society. Such measures also undermine state authority by generating widespread distrust.

Benjamin Franklin once remarked that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” He understood that the relationship between liberty and security is not a simple trade-off. Rather, it is more like a symbiotic relationship between a clown fish and a sea anemone: each needs the other in order to survive.

What can be done to preserve liberty while enhancing security?

The American government is struggling to strike a delicate balance between liberty and security. It is a task that is made harder by a tendency in the wake of September 11 to see enhanced security as more important than the threat to liberty involved in its pursuit.

In this context, Congressional debates over the USA Patriot Act illustrate a desire to increase the powers of law enforcement agencies with a minimum of deliberation (contrast that with a typical legislative process that can take more than a year for a bill to reach the President’s desk). Whether such legislation strikes a reasonable balance will depend on how it is implemented.

America must maintain a strong military to secure its liberties against threats that may be known and unknown. That is the core responsibility of its federal government. The nation’s Framers placed their faith not in specific guarantees of rights but in an elegant system of checks and balances that can limit government power.

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