Saturday, June 15, 2013

Liberty or Security?

by Bas van der Vossen

Bleeding Heart Libertarians

June 15, 2013

The recent news about so-called NSA surveillance programs brought back a familiar argument. Liberty and security, we are told, need to be balanced or traded off against each other. People on different sides of this debate help themselves to this image. Some (well really, more and more people) use it to claim that some of our liberty should be sacrificed at the alter of security. Others, often invoking Benjamin Franklin’s famous line, use the same argument to resist these programs.

Whether you endorse or fear the NSA’s activities, this talk of trading off freedom for security or a need to “balance” the two is really not helpful. Here are two reasons.

Suppose that there is a genuine tension between liberty and security. Does that mean we can simply trade off one for the other? Does it mean a balance (whatever that might mean) ought to be struck between the two? Not necessarily. Most of the freedoms at stake here are rights-protected freedoms – or at least they ought to be. As a rule, rights-protected things cannot be simply traded off for other valuable things.

So even if we could purchase more security with the currency of liberty (more on that in a moment), such a move may simply not be morally available. Quite frequently the rights of others get in the way of what we want. And quite frequently we want the things we do for good reason. But that does not take away from the importance of these rights. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.