Giving Up Liberty for Security

It's big government's favorite (bad) argument.


When Edward Snowden revealed that the federal government, in direct defiance of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, was unlawfully and unconstitutionally spying on all Americans who use telephones, text messaging or emails to communicate with other persons, he opened a Pandora's box of allegations and recriminations. The allegations he unleashed are that Americans have a government that assaults our personal freedoms, operates in secrecy and violates the Constitution and the values upon which it is based. The recriminations are that safety is a greater good than liberty, and Snowden interfered with the ability of the government to keep us safe by exposing its secrets, and so he should be silenced and punished.

In the course of this debate, you have heard the argument that we all need to sacrifice some liberty in order to assure our safety, that liberty and safety are in equipoise, and when they clash, it is the government that should balance one against the other and decide which shall prevail. This is, of course, an argument the government loves, as it presupposes that the government has the moral, legal and constitutional power to make this satanic bargain.

It doesn't.

Roman emperors and tribal chieftains, King George III and French revolutionaries, 20th-century dictators and 21st-century American presidents all have asserted that their first job is to keep us safe, and in doing so, they are somehow entitled to take away our liberties, whether it be the speech they hate or fear, the privacy they capriciously love to invade or the private property and wealth they salaciously covet.

This argument is antithetical to the principal value upon which America was founded. That value is simply that individuals—created in the image and likeness of God and thus possessed of the freedoms that He enjoys and has shared with us—are the creators of the government. A sovereign is the source of his own powers. The government is not sovereign. All the freedom that individuals possess, we have received as a gift from God, who is the only true sovereign. All of the powers the government possesses it has received from us, from our personal repositories of freedom.

Thomas Jefferson recognized this when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights are inalienable—they cannot be separated from us—because we have been endowed with them by our Creator. James Madison, who wrote the Constitution, observed that in the history of the world, when freedom has been won, it happened because those in power begrudgingly permitted freedom as a condition of staying in power or even staying alive.

But not in America.

In America, the opposite occurred when free people voluntarily permitted the government to exercise the limited power needed to protect freedom. That is known as "the consent of the governed." To Jefferson and Madison, a government lacking that consent is illegitimate.

So, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the principal author of the Constitution were of one mind on this: All persons are by nature free, and to preserve those freedoms, they have consented to a government. That was the government they gave us—not power permitting liberty, but liberty permitting power—and the instrument of that permission was the Constitution.

The Constitution was created by free men to define and limit the government so it can defend but not threaten our freedoms. Since only free persons can consent to a government, the government cannot lawfully exist without those consents. Here is where the modern-day tyrants and big-government apologists have succeeded in confusing well-meaning people. They have elevated safety—which is a goal of government—to the level of freedom—which created the government. This common and pedestrian argument makes the creature—safety—equal its creator—freedom. That is a metaphysical impossibility because it presumes that the good to be purchased is somehow equal to the free choices of the purchaser.

What does this mean?

It means that when politicians say that liberty and safety need to be balanced against each other, they are philosophically, historically and constitutionally wrong. Liberty is the default position. Liberty is the essence of our natural state. Liberty cannot possibly be equal to a good we have instructed the government to obtain.

What is the only moral relationship between liberty and safety?

It cannot be balance, because liberty and safety are not equals, as one created the other. It can only be bias — a continual predisposition toward and preference for freedom.

Every conceivable clash between the free choices of persons and their instructions to their government to safeguard freedom must favor the free choices because freedom is inalienable. Just as I cannot authorize the government to take away your freedom any more than you can authorize it to take away mine, a majority of all but one cannot authorize the government in a free society to take freedom from that one individual. So if somehow freedom and safety do clash, it is the free choice of each person to resolve that clash for himself, and not one the government can morally make.

The government will always make choices that favor its power because, as Ludwig von Mises reminded us, government is essentially the negation of freedom. If anyone truly believes that by silencing him or monitoring him or taxing him the government keeps him safe, and that those are the least restrictive means by which to do so, let that person surrender his own speech and privacy and wealth. The rest of us will retain ours and provide for our own safety.

The reasons we have consented to limited government are to preserve the freedom to pursue happiness, the freedom to be different and the freedom to be left alone. None of these freedoms can exist if we are subservient to the government in the name of safety or anything else.

NEXT: Brickbat: Safety First

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  1. Eh. I don’t completely disagree, but it’s probably more useful to point out that right now, we’re not getting freedom *or* security for what we’re giving. The TSA checkpoints have all of the protective utility of a dreamcatcher. We are funding Islamists based on the notion that power will moderate them — a notion as whimsical as it is lacking in real-world evidence. There are some things we are doing in the GWoT that are worth continuing, but for the most part we aren’t getting liberty or security for our efforts.

    If I’m giving up a sure thing (my freedom), you’re damn sure I want something in return. Vague promises and assertions about how much safer me and mine are just don’t cut it. When you look at how much government promises and assertions are worth in the real world, it makes me thing that maybe I want our freedoms back in the hands of the people who know what to do with it (namely, ourselves).

    1. If I’m giving up a sure thing (my freedom), you’re damn sure I want something in return.

      I usually do the “my freedom for receiving blowjobs” deal.

      Jus’ sayin’

      1. You know who else based a political movement around giving up freedom for jobs…?

        1. That’s easy; Ralph Nader.

        2. Spitzer.

        3. Pol Pot?

          1. Heinrich Himmler?

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      1. (speaking of blowjobs)

  2. Who are the true enemies of the Constitution of the United States? Are they brown skinned people hiding out in caves out in the middle of nowhere? Or are they the people elected to office in this very country?

    “A republic, madam, if you can keep it…”
    We did a really shitty job, as voters, trying to keep the republic.

    1. I keep thinking of the line from one of Mike Church’s movies (he’s made several about the founding of the US) heplays on his radio show. Thomas Paine is exhorting his colleagues that they should break from Britain because TYRANNY:

      “What enemy in this quarter of the globe requires the assembly of so many troops and armed forces? Gentlemen – I have news for you. WE ARE [the Colonists] that enemy….”

      Deja vu all over again…

    2. We did a really shitty job, as voters, trying to keep the republic.

      Once your government has the power to tax and regulate commerce, it’s all down hill from there. With that much power concentrated in the hands of a few, the incentives are simply not set up to restrain it. Government overreach and loss of freedom is going downhill, while keeping it in check is going uphill.

      I consider the power to tax and regulate commerce as “freedom loopholes.”

  3. Government doesn’t provide safety or security. It only provides an illusion of safety through security theater.

    1. Groping Keeps Us Safe?

      1. Somebody wittier than I should come up with a law that can be named the GROPE Act.

        1. Global Reconnaissance Operation to Protect Everyone. How’s that one work?

        2. Governmental Requisition Of Pornographic Environment

        3. Government Relief Of Pedophilac Entities

        4. General Reeducation Of Public Expectations

  4. I don’t believe most people give it any thought at all. They spend zero thought on their liberties and only become vocal when they are inconvenienced. Just like the stupid Roman masses, they are easily distracted by circuses like the Zimmerman trial.

    1. Unlike the popular conception, historians estimate that approximately 1/3 of the American colonists were Loyalists and another third were neutral.

      66 percent is a supermajority: think about that.

      1. 33% willing to use violence were able secure their independence and liberty.

        Think about that.

        1. I don’t think it was as high as 33%.

          1. Growing up in an area that had been “between the lines” during the Revolution, I developed the rather cynical view that most of the fighting was really about simply shooting at anybody who was in your corn.

        2. Nah. 33% willing to support violence. Probably only about 3% willing to commit it.

          1. That would be 10 million today.

      2. Interesting to compare the actions taken by the British that caused the revolution to the assaults on liberty our own government is committing.

    2. I mean, I mostly agree, but think about what any given person has to deal with in a day. There’s work, which probably takes up a big chunk of time. There’s family, kids and so forth. Bills, keeping the house from falling over, stuff like that. And that’s not even taking into account stuff like figuring out how you’re gonna afford to retire, or send your kids to school, or anything like that.

      Politicians have those same time sinks, except for one important difference. While you’re spending most of your waking hours getting paid to write code, or build decks, or drive a truck, or diagnose somebody’s dog’s allergies, they’re getting paid to legislate and govern. They don’t have to make the “guns vs. butter” choice when it comes to politics that most people do.

      1. +1 Truck Driver just trying to keep the wolves from the door.

  5. OT: Pope Francis visits Brazil and speaks out against drug legalization; quotes the Gospel of John, “‘Fuck junkies,’ sayeth the Lord.”

    1. Just drink alcohol, the way God intended.

    2. Jesus is a toker! It’s right there in the Catholic Mass… “You alone are the Lord, the Most High Jesus Christ”.

  6. If anyone truly believes that by silencing him or monitoring him or taxing him the government keeps him safe, and that those are the least restrictive means by which to do so, let that person surrender his own speech and privacy and wealth. The rest of us will retain ours and provide for our own safety.

    The problem is: Such a person knows *s/he* is not a threat to safety, but thinks *you* might be.

    Is such a person paranoid?

  7. “the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the principal author of the Constitution were of one mind on this: All persons are by nature free”

    Well, maybe except those people those two actually owned. Really, different examples than those Founders that actively participated in human chattel slavery should probably be pointed to in these kinds of articles.

    1. Well, person-persons.

    2. God, I’m sick and fucking tired of this argument.

      Because people don’t live up to their principles, doesn’t negate the rightness of those principles.

      Jefferson and Madison were MORE anti-slavery than most of their peers at the time.

      1. Jefferson and Madison were MORE anti-slavery than most of their peers at the time.

        And slavery had been up to their time an accepted practice in the eyes of the majority.

      2. Bo Cara’s argument is a canard and is the default, fallback position of the big-talk-but-no-results Left. Jefferson and Madison were finer, wiser and more ethical and moral men than any politician alive today and I’ll bet my net worth on that.

        1. Oh yeah, and another thing —

          You really think any politician, academic egghead or television clown would risk their actual lives and fortunes on the treasonous idea of breaking off from the world’s largest superpower and forming their own country? You think Obama would put his nuts and money where his mouth is? Hell no and all you crackpots who besmirch two of the noblest and most beneficent men to the human race know it.

          1. Why should they? They’re at the top of the pyramid. It would be like King George wanting to be the President of the United States.

  8. I object to the entire debate. We are not giving up liberty for security. To say we are is to assume our security apparatus actually provides security. It clearly doesn’t. None of these measures that are supposed to protect our security have ever been shown to do any such thing. Let the advocates of these programs come back and give concrete and rational reasons why these programs increase our security rather than platitudes and wild ass guesses pulled out of their asses and then we can have the liberty versus security debate. Until then, they can stop taking our liberty.

    1. Hows about they simply fuck off? I don’t care if their little program makes me marginally safer; I’d rather live free in a dangerous world than be a slave in a safe one.

      1. Amen!

      2. I agree. But even making that statement gives them too credit. Right now the option of living in a safer one isn’t even available. When they offer such an option, I will dignify them with a fuck off.

    2. True dat. I was talking to a guy about NSA surveillance, good dude but a real “true believer”. He told me that they’d stopped upwards of 50 attacks thanks to stuff like PRISM and the phone sweeps, but, of course, he couldn’t give me an exact number or tell me the nature of the threats. I mean, he could’ve swapped “terrorist attacks” for “dog bites” or “alien invasions” for all the proof he could offer.

    3. But according to several politicians and NSA heads this secret data capture prevented over 50 terrorist plots! (Of course, they won’t give us any details on those 50.)

  9. The security state exists for the purposes of the elite, to suppress the peons such that they do not get in the way of the elite’s plans.

    It’s got precious little to do with protecting the peons.

    The security state doesn’t view events like 9/11 as tragedies – it views them as embarrassments that can be quickly shaped into opportunities to increase expanding the security state.

  10. Within a few days of 09/11/2001 I had contacted my representatives in government, one of whom was John McCain, to let them know I felt it would be the biggest mistake possible to let the situation disintegrate into one in which we end up forfeiting our prized liberties in exchange for real, or imagined, securities.

    Looking back, most likely all I did was have my name one of the first put on the new big ‘enemies’ list that they were probably already assembling.

    1. I did the same to my elected representatives, none of whom represent my views very well.

  11. Chris Plante on NSA now; you can call in

    888 630 wmal

  12. We voted. This is what we got.
    If you voted for douche-head over shit bag, then it’s your fault.

    Of course, the guy who won isn’t driving the bus.

    Tony was correct the other day, “If Government doesn’t act on behalf of the people; Then we’re fucked regardless.”

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  14. Quite an ironic defense of spying. We have a national defense to defend our rights and freedoms as Americans. If we give up those rights and freedoms we already lost the war.

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  24. Government doesn’t provide safety or security. It only provides an illusion of safety through security theater.

  25. What a wonderfully written essay! I could not agree anymore with the author.

    I would rather be homeless and dying if it meant my freedom and all others were still in check. This is what I think most are missing now. They think more in the realms of “am I safe” rather than “am I free.” They aren’t willing to pay the price that freedom entails.

    I’ve been saying for years we need a class specifically teaching what our rights are, what they mean, and why you should be willing to die for them. Most Millennials genuinely believe the government gives them there rights. That is a VERY dangerous misconception we need to squash in our society.

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