Security gains its effectiveness by reducing freedom
Remember the classic question that populated every personality test: Would you rather be “liked” or “respected?” Well, how about this question: Would you rather have “individual freedom” or “security?” Admittedly, this is a type of Hobson’s choice since you want to respond to these questions with “I want both.” But being a “take-it-or-leave-it” proposition, which one would you pick?
It can be argued that freedom is not possible without security, but the problem is that by definition, security limits freedom. And for that reason, the all-or-nothing approach simply doesn’t fit our American lifestyle.
Thus, when a government is expected to guarantee both individual freedom and security (for the individual and society) it creates deep fissures of conflict. Like gigantic tectonic plates under the earth’s crust, these issues constantly crash into each other, causing cataclysmic seismic events. And if a government is unable to balance the tension between freedom and security, then members of society could end up losing both individual freedom and security.
“Proliferation” is in the DNA of Government
Reconciling this conflict between more freedom and more security is made all the more difficult because the very nature of a government is to expand in size and power. Governments can grow only by doing something, and most often the desired expansion is carried out under the guise of “increased security.” National security is threatened by terrorist attacks, for example, so a vast new “Homeland Security Department” is created and everyone is forced to walk shoeless in airports while clutching baggies of toiletries. Individuals are concerned about financial security in retirement, so “Social Security” is created; and everyone loses the freedom to decide whether to participate. And so on.
It is this expansive nature of government that has many purists on the political right vociferously railing against the intrusion of government into our personal lives, arguing that this is a threat to individual freedom and liberty. And yet, at the same time, these same people turn a blind eye to the government’s monitoring, collating and warehousing virtually all of every individual’s private communications and activities, all in the name of “national security.”
On one hand, government efforts to establish a level playing field, set up the rules of the game, arbitrate differences and penalize rule breakers, are seen as intrusive threats to liberty. On the other hand, surreptitious snooping by rhe government into virtually all private citizens’ activities in the name of “national security” protects individual liberty? Isn’t there a disconnect here? Or, am I missing something?
Absolute freedom and absolute security cannot co-exist in the real world. The more unconditional individual freedom is, the less certain security becomes. For every degree of increased security, the level of individual freedom is diminished. For a real-time example of the conflict between freedom and security we need look no further that the current Winter Olympic Games in Russia. In an effort to provide near-absolute security, freedom is virtually non-existent.
The real questions to be asked are: How much are we willing to pay in the form of reduced liberty for increased security? How much security are we willing to sacrifice in exchange for increased individual freedom? The answer to these questions lives in a middle-ground populated by reasonableness, compromise and transparency; attitudes that are missing from the current political landscape.
Where will the Conflict End?
The debate over the role of government is not new. It has endured unresolved for eons. The problem has always been that an imperfect institution – government – is charged with overseeing the implementation of two mutually conflicting concepts – freedom and security. Government serves its citizens best when it seeks to function like a fulcrum of a teeter-totter balancing the security of society on one side and individual freedoms on the other side. It is when a government – for whatever reason – begins to “take sides” that problems will develop. Unless controls are in place and monitored, government – spurred by its proclivity to increase in size and power – will always take sides. The most critical element needed in order to monitor how well government is in balance is transparency and openness. Only when government is allowed to do its business in secret does it feel free to take sides in the tension between individual freedom and security. Governments have a history of using a desire for “security” as an excuse for secrecy. A secrecy that if unchallenged can threaten individual freedom.
The Magna Carta of 1215 was the first formal Anglo-Saxon effort to force government to balance its actions between freedom and security. The Magna Carta established the first “rules of engagement” for government and demanded transparency on the part of the King in order to monitor compliance. That same battle was joined in the earliest days of American independence.
The Founding Fathers recognized the need for government – especially to provide security – but were terrified that any government would eventually snuff out the very freedom they fought so hard to attain. It was this fear that motivated Thomas Jefferson to suggest that a rebellion against the government every 20 years or so was needed to refresh the “tree of liberty.” The first government of the United States (The Articles of Confederation) failed because the absolute desire for freedom left no currency to pay for security. The second – and current – government of the United States sought to give the government power to provide security, but was not ratified until a “Bill of Rights” was added to balance the need for individual freedom. The battle to balance “security” with “individual freedom” has continued unabated since then.
We are engaged in one of those battles now. Again, the question is: How much of our personal privacy and individual freedom are we willing to give up (pay) for security against a terrorist attack? Like it or not, the current debate was triggered when Edward Snowden took it upon himself to expose the extensive secret surveillance programs conducted against American citizens, all in the name of “national security;” programs that no doubt would have continued unabated – if not expanded – had they not been exposed.
There are those who see Snowden – at best – as a criminal and at worst a traitorous spy. Others see him as an heroic soldier in the battle to preserve individual freedom and liberty. (It might be easier to consider him a hero if he was willing to stand up and fight his case in court, even if it meant sacrificing his personal liberty to protect the liberty of others.) Of course government argues that exposing these clandestine surveillance programs reduces “national security.” But don’t they also help protect against the loss of individual privacy and freedom? The point is that it should be society – not the government – that decides the balance between “freedom” and “security,” because it is society that ultimately pays the price.
In the end, government can only fulfill its basic responsibility as a balancing fulcrum between the protection of individual liberty and the providing of security when knowledge, information and transparency are considered as essential as the desire for freedom and security.
And the Moral of the Story …
What is most important? Individual freedom or security? In truth they both are important, but in the real world these concepts tend to be mutually exclusive; one pays for the other. Absolute freedom eliminates any security; maximum security snuffs out the life of freedom. The only way to come to terms with this conundrum is to charge government with the responsibility to balance – not take sides – when it comes to these conflicting concepts. To accomplish this objective society must decide how much individual freedom it is willing to spend to buy security or how much security it is willing to forego to assure individual freedom. The only way to assure the efficacy of such a debate is to make sure that the only absolute is openness and transparency of government actions.