Liberty & Security

James Otteson,

Release Date
June 29, 2011


Civil Liberties

How should we think about the tradeoff between liberty and security? Prof. James Otteson of Yeshiva University argues that a basic amount of security is critical to protect our lives, liberty, and property. Beyond this minimal amount, there is a tradeoff between liberty and security. Some liberty must be given up if we want the government to protect us from risks such as disease, terrorism, and economic downturns. This requires giving up control of our lives to others, which reduces our liberty as well as our human dignity.

Liberty & Security
What is the connection between liberty and security? To some extent liberty requires security. You can’t be free if you’re constantly harangued on every corner by people who might take your property, your life, your liberty. Indeed John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government argued that the purpose of government was to create a kind of security for those things that would allow for liberty. Specifically, he argued that the government should provide for the security of life, liberty, and property. Once your life, your liberty, and your property are secure, then you can begin to use your liberty effectively. You can do the things you want in life.
But what if we want the government to secure us against other things besides just those three? There are, after all, lots of risks in the world. Life is full of risks. Suppose we want the government to begin guaranteeing us against other kinds of risks. Risks from terrorism, risks from disease, risks associated with old age, and on and on. Once you begin to think about all the risky behaviors and all the risks that life poses, there are an awful lot of things that a government might have to do.
Well, should we ask the government to protect us against all of those? Here’s something to consider. The more security we want, it comes at a price. What is the price? It’s not just money, although it is money. It’s not just time and energy, it’s also our liberty. Because the more things the government protects us against, the more things that we no longer have control over ourselves. And we may reach a point, there may be a threshold at which we no longer have really any liberty. If we’ve asked the government to secure us against all risks, no cost barred, then what we’ve done effectively is we’ve handed over all of the authority, all of the discretion over our decisions and our lives to some other entity, to the state. At that point we have effectively zero liberty. But not only do we not have liberty then, we probably also don’t have security, precisely because we are no longer in control of our lives, somebody else is. It reminds us of that famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, something to the effect of, people who would give up essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither, and they’ll probably end up losing both. That contains some important wisdom.
Liberty and security are tradeoffs. The more security we get, the less liberty we’re going to have. Now where exactly is the tradeoff? Where exactly is the threshold beyond which we shouldn’t go? People of good faith might have differing views about that, but I would add one other aspect to the Franklin quote. And that is that liberty is not just a tradeoff against security. Liberty is also the thing that gives us dignity. We have human, moral dignity because we have liberty. So if we are giving our liberty away in exchange for security, we’re not only losing the liberty, but we’re also losing to that same extent some of our dignity. That’s a very high price to pay and once we give that liberty up it may be very difficult to ever get it back.