Unrealistic Expectations: Security vs Freedom

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As Americans, we must decide whether or not we prize security over freedom. We cannot have it both ways. It’s time for us to understand that. The bombing on April 15th at the Boston Marathon re-enforced that point for me, although it’s a topic I have thought about a lot over the past years since September 11, 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, our nation changed significantly, both in our psyche and our structure. Preventing such a horrendous event from ever happening again became a personal mission for me as well, leading to a new career path. I applied to, and got a job with, a certain federal agency charged with protecting America from future terrorist attacks. Over the course of my nearly 8 years there, and in the time since I left it, my view point has changed from being fairly strongly “hawkish,” to one that is much more Libertarian (though I prefer “Classically Liberal”). In short, I don’t believe we can truly protect our nation from attack while also preserving civil liberties to the level we should expect, that is, to the level preserved in the Constitution.

I once decried the foreign policy of Libertarian Guru Ron Paul as “terrifying,” but now, while perhaps not completely in agreement with his isolationist ideals, I have shifted significantly towards the non-aggressionist end of the spectrum. I don’t know that I will ever be “dovish”, the usual opposite of “hawkish,” because I believe in using force as retribution when attacked. However, I believe our Nation’s foreign policy needs a significant change to a non-interference mantra. We cannot, and should not, try to push our agenda upon the entire world.

This shift in my thinking has been formed over time, from many influences, but is based upon two primary principals:

  1. I believe that by valuing individual liberty (here and abroad) above the wishes of the collective (or government), we have a better chance of achieving world peace in the most moral way possible, and
  2. I do not believe the government has the ability (both in resources and competence), nor the moral authority to protect us from all threats, perceived and real.

If I added an unofficial third principal, it would be that the law of unintended consequences often rears its head in horrifying ways.

How does this relate to security vs liberty? I do not believe perfect (or near-perfect) security is possible, regardless of the laws or policies we enact. Even the most totalitarian states are vulnerable to terrorism, and violent crime. A person intent on causing harm to one or more individuals, will find a way to do so. But in the process of trying to prevent as much carnage as possible, we as a society, tend to readily acquiesce our freedom as a surprisingly fast pace. And as we try to impose our will on each other and other nations, we stir a hornets nest of unintended responses and attitudes, not only because violence towards our enemies inevitably hurts innocents, but because in doing so, we become hypocritical of our moral imperative to protect individual life, liberty, and property, thus denying the right to pursue happiness.

After 9/11, Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon attacks, and countless other atrocities, the natural inclination from terrified and horrified citizens, and politicians is to rush to DO SOMETHING! OR BLAME SOMEONE! OR DO SOMETHING BY BLAMING SOMEONE! Make laws and shame those that disagree! The choices we make immediately following something as horrific as these events highlight our emotional natures, and suppress our rational sides. Politicians throw barbs with the objective of trying to demonize the other side by playing off our natural emotional responses to feel revulsion, and our inability to put them into proper historical context. Inevitably, rash responses follow, and all too often get enshrined into law, further diluting our free society.

I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. This book should be required reading (if I believed in such a thing, which I do not) for all Americans. With astounding amounts of evidence, Pinker proves his thesis that the world is a much less violent place right now than in all of human history. It can be hard to believe such a statement when faced with the 24/7 news cycle bombarding us with images of bomb victims, or the latest school shooting. And of course, nothing can truly heal the wounds of victims and family members whose lives have been irrevocably changed, or snuffed out. Their suffering deserves attention. They deserve our compassion. But they do not deserve us changing the fundamentals of why this country exists. Ironically, even as we have become safer, we have become less free, mostly by our own submission. This is a trend I hope we can reverse.

It’s easy to forget what the Americans who fought the Revolution risked in order to create a state ruled by the people, yet one that protected the minority and majority alike by recognizing certain fundamental, and pre-existing rights. It’s easy for us to forget what an amazing goal and ultimate achievement this was, during a time when monarchies and empires controlled their citizens with absolute authority the world over. As American students, we learn about Patrick Henry’s cry to “Give me liberty or give me death!”http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-liberty-image26285626 and we think, oh, that’s nice, but that doesn’t apply to my life right now. Or we think of it in a detached way, as if the Patriots were not real people fighting for real ideals in a life or death situation of winner take all. They were willing to die so that a new experiment could take shape to form a society that valued the liberty of individuals over the whims of the King or the collective. They believed that through individual liberty, the society as a whole could be one of maximum peace, tolerance, and prosperity. It’s a gamble that has been proven to work over and over again since then. The freer a society, the more peaceful and prosperous its citizens are in general.

But with the quest for liberty, we inevitably must accept a significant risk in our safety. Often in politics we hear the mantra, “if it saves one life, we should” enact that law, or restrict this freedom. My response to that particular use of our emotions as a political plaything: Of course we should try to protect lives. Of course we shouldn’t disregard the human toll. But we need to do so in a reasonable and effective way that doesn’t make this life undesirable to live, (if not for us today, but for future generations), in a way that preserves our diverse sub-cultures, and does not trample on the pre-ordained rights of individuals to live their lives as they see fit. We drift further and further from those ideals as time goes by. We have allowed fear to drive us into a collectivist way of thinking about how to improve society.

So, this brings me to my original point. Preventing terrorism is not really possible. The fact of the matter is, it is not possible to predict any future event, no matter how much money we throw at the terrorism leviathan, no matter how well trained our intelligence services are (and I’m not saying they are). There will always be a way to punch a hole in the security measures we implement. What our preventative measures almost exclusively do is make life more burdensome for law abiding individuals, while doing almost nothing to curb the violent ones. The burdens we’ve imposed on ourselves may seem worth it at the moment, but how often do we see laws being repealed, or softened? Nearly never. The call is almost always for MORE MORE MORE! And we the people allow this to continue. We are complicit because we do not value liberty any more. We are not taught to value liberty. We are taught to think of “society” as a single organism. We do not understand the unintended consequences of blessing the government with greater control over our movements and privacy. We somehow have been convinced that only through strong, central government intervention can we achieve some sort of Utopian society. We’ve been led to believe that individuality is wrong, and instead we are one people with the exact same thoughts and dreams. That we are there to serve our government, rather than our government being there to serve us.

Unlike many Libertarians, I do not believe the government is overwhelmingly corrupt. I think corruption undoubtedly exists. And I believe strongly in the axiom that “power corrupts”, but I think overall the abuses we see within government are the usually result of incompetence, and/or misaligned incentives. That is not to say that there is something inherently incompetent in people who work for the government. In my experience, some of the most amazingly talented and intelligent people work for the government. They care deeply about your life and your security. Many of them risk their lives to keep you safe. But as bureaucracy grows, so do incentives that are out of whack. Only through competition can individuals and organizations be held accountable in a truly democratic way. That system is simply not possible within government on any kind of large or adequate scale, which is one reason why I believe we need to limit the government’s authority in most aspects of our lives, especially when it comes to laws or policy designed to prevent something bad. Ultimately, government is made up of humans who are just as imperfect as you and I. To expect “it” to solve our problems is like tilting at windmills.


The FBI is the best in the world at solving a crime that has occurred and bringing the perpetrator(s) to justice. But to ask it to prevent a crime as if it has the power of the pre-cogs from Minority Report is ludicrous. There is currently much discussion in the media about the report that the FBI had interviewed the Boston bombing’s deceased Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years ago, yet allowed him to carry out the attack. Senator Lindsey Graham is quoted as saying, “So maybe it’s the system failed, didn’t provide the FBI with the tools, or maybe they didn’t use it properly,” he added. “That’s why maybe we need to find out what happened.”

Without getting mired in the minutia of how the laws of the land work, I will just summarize by saying, the expectation that the FBI could have prevented the bombing based on this earlier interview of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is absurd unless you also accept the idea that your personal liberty is meaningless. Tsarnaev was a US Person, a description that brings with it certain rights and requirements pertaining to investigations by law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Absent any specific information that this guy was plotting an attack, (not to mention the sheer volume of these types of interviews the FBI does), it is beyond silly to suggest the FBI could have done anything to prevent the bombings, unless of course, you would prefer the FBI trample on the rights of US Persons. The same could be said of almost every single terrorist attack that has ever occurred. Misusing the benefit of hindsight knowledge to criticize an agency for something it has no power to stop is vile.

According to Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, individuals, even experts, are terrible at prediction. Even financial advisors, people trained through the incentive of making money for personal benefit, do a terrible job at predicting markets. And in order to attempt to analyze a trend, you need data. The more data, the better the analysis. All kinds of data are needed, and in the case of intelligence, you don’t really know what data you need to find a trend. It’s not like investigating an event that has occurred in the past, where you know how it ends, and can track the evidence backwards. The thirst for data means that data must be collected. And when you don’t know what you’re looking for, you want it all. In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it appears the information the FBI was given was that he had become more radicalized and had changed. I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but becoming radicalized is not actually a crime. We have something called the 1st Amendment in this country, and you are allowed to say and believe some pretty hateful things. That is not evidence of a crime, nor should it be used to put you under suspicion absent additional information that points elsewhere. In this case, the FBI was protecting your rights, and is getting trampled for it in the media and by grandstanding politicians. Yet, we as citizens are culpable in that theater.

We cannot ask the US Intelligence Community to analyze data that is paradoxically too voluminous and yet inadequate in detail, and expect it to predict impossible future violent events while simultaneously protecting our right to privacy and free speech, among other rights. You simply cannot have it both ways. Not only is predicting future terrorist attacks (or other crime) with any level of certainty or specificity an impossible goal (even if our current USIC model was perfectly structured, which it isn’t), but it is certainly not possible without giving up our fundamentals of liberty. So by trying to force that impossible mission upon the government, we make both failure, and (usually unintentional) abuse of civil liberties probable.

As I’ve thought more and more about this basic truth, I have decided that the mission of US law enforcement needs to be explicitly changed back to serving justice rather than crime/terrorism prevention, both in the letter of the law and in the American people’s minds. Justice and prevention are not the same. In a free society, we grant human beings the right to live their lives in any way they see fit so long as they do not infringe the rights of others to do the same. Put another way, my rights end only where yours begin. I cannot hurt you physically. I cannot steal your property. I cannot infringe on your fundamental individual rights, many of which are stated explicitly in the Constitution, many of which are not. Any law that restricts my freedom is not justified unless it supports that notion of equal rights. Any law that prevents my equal freedom is not a just law. Unfortunately, our legal system is riddled with these laws. Take for example the rash of anti-texting laws sweeping the nation. If I text and drive, am I more likely to get into an accident? Yes. Without question. But will 100% of individuals who text and drive get into an accident? Absolutely not. So, if I text and drive, and a police officer cites me for it despite me never having hurt a single person, how is that a just law? He is citing me based on the mere possibility that I may hurt someone or someone’s property in the future, even though I may never do so. That is the definition of pre-crime. The federal government, in particular its law enforcement agencies, should exist to provide me justice when my rights to live freely are trampled by other individuals, and that is it. A law that says I cannot text and drive even though I have not hurt anyone else is a law that suggests I have hurt the state in some way by not hurting someone else (after all, how can I be restricted when I have not hurt anyone or anything)? When the state becomes the injured party, we have a problem. How is it just to hold me accountable for a crime I may commit? A law is not just, just because it’s a law.

Our mindsets as a society should not be to first assume the government will protect us from everything, from things like our abuse of food, to the dangers of texting while driving, to the huge things like terrorist bombings. http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-freedom-way-image18974409A focus on prevention should not be, and cannot be, the role of government. Government’s responsibility should be to seek justice for us when we are harmed and our rights are abused by other individuals (or sadly by the state). It is our responsibility as individuals who seek peaceful coexistence with other individuals who think differently than we do, and who value different things than we do, to find a way to live together, and influence one another in non-coercive ways.

Are we really making gains as a society if the only way we can force our neighbors to act in ways we prefer is to make laws, which are backed by government’s monopoly of force? I say we are not. I do not believe we can ever rid our world of violence or evil people, but I especially do not believe we will ever do so by expecting the government to protect us from evil. It cannot do so to perfection, nor can it do so without restricting privacy, abusing rights (however inadvertently), and using force. My dream is for a world where the government is there to help me seek justice against those who have harmed me, and to help me enforce voluntary contracts, but that otherwise leaves me alone to work with my fellow citizens to make the world a better place by using the power of words, and actions that promote human well-being.

Justice versus security? I choose justice. I choose freedom. How about you?





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  • Brett Bateman

    RE: text and drive
    Texting and driving is reckless behavior in a public place where heavy machinery (automobiles) are in use at high speeds. To be consistent with the idea that its illegality is unethical, you would also have to say that drinking and driving should be legal, as long as you don’t cause injury or property damage.

    Other than that, fantastic essay. Reminds me of the best of Christine Smith, who sought the LP presidential nomination in 2008.

    • Hi Brett,

      Sorry I didn’t catch your comment earlier! Thanks for reading and for the nice comments. To answer your criticism, I would say that I actually do believe drinking and driving should be legal as long as you don’t cause injury or property damage. I do not believe a crime exists unless there is an injured party. For a more detailed discussion of my thoughts on this, you might check out this post: http://www.persephonespath.com/persephonekblog/national-conversation-on-drugs-misses-the-boat/

      Its more about drugs, but I see alcohol as a drug. A college professor of mine actually suggested to the class once that drinking and driving should be legal and I remember being a bit shocked. But as I thought about it more, I agreed with him. However, I believe just as with texting, if you harm anyone or any property while under the influence, you should suffer strong consequences.

      I should add, that I feel that drinking and driving is a horrible, awful choice. I have had family members impacted by that choice. And we need to come up with better ways of making it ok to not drive home when you’ve been drinking. I don’t think criminalizing just the act solves anything. I think it just drives it underground. But at the end of the day, it comes down to my libertarian principals… no victim, no crime.