Lifting the Scales Off Their Eyes


Writing from foreign policy's Lethal Center about the Bush Administration's Constitution-dodging surveillance programs, the Washington Post's world-weary David Ignatius drops as fact a formulation I find fiction:

The challenge in the coming debate will be to find the right balance between national security and civil liberties. The loudest arguments will come from those who see the issue in black and white—who want to tilt in one direction, toward security or liberty. But those won't be the wisest arguments.

Why do these smarter-than-me people so frequently assume there's some kind of perfectly balanced scale of a country's foreign affairs, with one tray marked "liberty" and the other "security"? The idea is bogus on its face.

If you could truly achieve one goal by removing emphasis from the other, then the least free states would be the most secure, and the most free would be on the brink of collapse, right?

Let's take nine of the countries that recently received the highest score (1) from Freedom House's annual survey of global civil liberties: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Mauritius, Taiwan, the United States, Uruguay.

Now let's take the nine countries that received the lowest score of 7: Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan. I dunno, which group looks more "secure" to you?

Speaking less analogically, the United States military over the last three decades has ended mandatory conscription, radically decentralized decision-making authority to individuals on the ground, opened up multiple lines of communication across every level, and embraced (at least to some extent) a new movement toward what's being called "open source" defense. Every one of these reforms has increased "liberty"—of communication, of decision-making, of the rights of civilians not to shoot strangers—and yet somehow our fighting forces are more effective and powerful than ever. Go figure.

As a fan of the color gray myself, I won't go so far as exchanging one bogus binary scale for another. But I would suggest that a fella can believe with perfect sincerity—even without succumbing to libertarian panic—that liberty and security are complementary, not mutually exclusive. The proverbial "challenge in the coming debate," or at least one of them, is to re-insert that idea back on the table when the Wise Men decide which Founding Principle to ignore next.