How Much Freedom Should We Trade for Our Security?

In the wake of September 11th it goes without saying that the citizens of the countries of the West and in particular the United States will have to forego a degree of liberty in order to provide more adequately for their security. And it is not merely a post-9/11 phenomenon: terrorism, the main factor underlying the quest for security, has been around since the 1970s, and other security-oriented problems such as street crime have been moving to the center of the political agenda of their own accord. An example of this is provided by the 2002 Dutch elections, in which street crime became perhaps the key issue in the campaign, and in which, ironically, the electoral candidate who had made the most of the need to tighten security, Pim Fortuyn, was murdered just a week before elections were held. It seems that broad societal acceptance does obtain for the need to put into place more far-reaching forms of surveillance capabilities entailing some degradation of privacy and liberty in exchange for greater security. Such measures include surveillance cameras in public places, identification cards, body searches, and the conscious return to more “shady” intelligence practices which in the United States were made illegal by President Jimmy Carter, as part of his campaign to give priority to human rights in US foreign policy. 

All of this may well be warranted and inevitable. But it begs the question of whether there is so much liberty in Western society in the first place as to make it problematic to yield up some of it. As if liberty were the baseline condition, available in abundance, and security, at the other end of the continuum, was in short supply and amenable to great extension. Are the scales really tipped so heavily in favor of the liberty side of the liberty/security equation?  

By raising this issue I do not wish to diminish in any way the importance of the need for greater security against such dangers as terrorist attack or street crime. I wish rather to place the notion of security in a broader context: that of the place of the individual citizen in the broader society, as a member of that society and a citizen involved in its political organization. And in this context, it is not clear at all that liberty is the baseline condition and security a subordinate consideration. Taken in the gross, man the political animal has always emphasized security over liberty, and he still does so.  

In Victorian England Sir Henry Sumner Maine spoke famously of the transition in the history of human societies from status to contract, with status, a condition of close, set, hierarchical relations, the condition universally obtaining in the early history of society, gradually giving way, as part of an intricate process catalyzed by the development of institutions of property and contract, to a condition in which voluntary relations are the norm, in which persons are considered free and equal, deciding for themselves how to structure their lives. Victorian England saw itself far along the path toward this contractualism, and there was no lack of celebrants such as Herbert Spencer wishing it Godspeed in its further course. But even as the protagonists of enlightened liberalism were writing their congratulatory paeans, the great mass of supposed beneficiaries of the promise of progress in fact were imbibing, not those liberal screeds championing the triumph of liberty, but rather the multiplying socialist and Marxist critiques decrying the loss of security being foisted on them. For them it was no brave new world opening before them, fetters cast aside, squinting eyes blinking in a new dawn after an ageless darkness; no, it was a threat, the threat of lost livelihoods, lost traditions, lost folkways, the things that had provided their perhaps dreary lives with stability, with certainty, with security. And the advance to democracy was not accompanied by continued cries for greater liberty; no, it was accompanied by ever greater claims on the public purse in order to provide an ever-expanding panoply of public services, the road to cradle-to-grave security which is the bedrock of the modern welfare state. 

Security has always been the chief concern. Perhaps the most searing depiction of this reality, albeit in the rather unedifying garb of atheistical ranting, was provided by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in his classic The Brothers Karamazov. “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born” – so did Dostoevsky put his finger on one of the most fundamental realities of the human condition. 

The lack of attention given to this situation is nothing short of astounding. But it has not entirely escaped notice. One of its intrepid investigators, Dr Erich Fromm, made it the basis of his remarkable analysis of Nazism, published in the darkest days of the Second World War: Escape From Freedom (1941). From the perspective of neo-Freudian psychology, Dr Fromm provided a thorough diagnosis of the human condition as the transition to a condition of anomie and vertigo brought about by breaking the primary bonds of childhood, with the need to provide a response: either, in the best case, by ascending the staircase of self-realization, or, in the worst case, by descending into the pit of self-negation, seeking an outlet in which to lose oneself, lose one’s independent identity. In the case of Germany, the multitude chose the latter course, in the form of Nazism. 

It is sad to note that Dr. Fromm himself, in penetrating so deeply to uncover the root of the Nazi phenomenon, could offer as an alternative nothing other than feeble socialism, itself the product of the self-same desire to escape from freedom he so capably dissected. It is a mistake that was not repeated by another great European of his generation, Bertrand de Jouvenel, who in another book written during the Second World War, On Power (translation published 1949, original French 1945), not only rightly pointed out the primacy of the drive for security over the drive for liberty but also refused to attribute the drive to security, as exemplified in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the dominance of capitalism and the rise of mass man and mass organization – as Fromm had – but to the Rights of Man and Citizen themselves. De Jouvenel discerned, as not many others have, that those rights in fact are the transcript of sturdy, autonomous, self-reliant citizenship, in no need of the material security a welfare state can provide – and as such, they contradict the aspirations of modern times. It is this contradiction that M. de Jouvenel laid bare – this contradiction lying at the heart of the human rights doctrine itself, that the rights of life, liberty, and property put forward in the 18th century are the antithesis of subsequently promulgated rights to work, social security, and the like. The former are rights to liberty, the latter rights to security; and it would be singularly obtuse to deny that the latter have been consistently and inexorably gaining ground on the former, and probably will continue to do so until they either swallow them up entirely, or the course of history itself becomes clear to the public consciousness and then – mirabile dictu – is consciously diverted.

The new rights of man are given out as coming to complete those already proclaimed in the eighteenth century. But the least reflection is sufficient to show that in fact they contradict and abrogate them. The old ones, in decreeing liberty, made each man the sole master of his own actions; the state could not guarantee their consequences, which had to be borne by the individual alone. Whereas, on the other hand, if the state is to guarantee to a man what the consequences of his actions shall be, it must take control of his activities. In the first case, a man is thought of as an adult, he is freed from tutelage and left to face the risks of life himself. Whereas, in the second, the purpose is to keep him out of the way of risks; he is treated as an incapable and put in leading-strings. The conclusion is, then, that the promises of today in fact close the cycle which was opened by the declarations of earlier days. The liberty then given is taken back in exchange for a security which is desired by all (On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, Liberty Fund, p. 389).

It may well be that such a situation of “securitarianism” – de Jouvenel’s term – signals neither the Apocalypse nor George Orwell’s 1984, but is simply a pragmatic accommodation of legitimate societal needs and aspirations. If that is the case, though, why must we persist in the delusion that we share in a situation of freedom, such that we must consider exchanging a certain amount of it in order to gain greater security? And why must we persist in using the language of liberty – rights – to describe what in actuality is a situation of subjection and dependency? Perhaps we are in need of another Erich Fromm to lay bare to us the deep psychological roots of – let us be honest about it – this rather flagrant exercise in self-deception.

Copyright © 2002 Ruben Alvarado