Attaining Both Security and Liberty

We are often told that during an emergency we must sacrifice our liberties for security. This is nonsense: the real trade-off is different. Security is inconvenient and costly, but it does not take away one's liberty. Security, like everything else, is an economic good and is bought at the expense of pleasure or utility. Suppose that you want to protect yourself from life's little irritations by wearing a knight's armor. You are still as free as before; you are not constrained by any human being the way that you had not been before you put on the chainmail. But you are probably less comfortable than before, and your wallet is thinner, because you had to spend money to buy the armor.

Similarly, locking your apartment door when you leave does not decrease your liberty, but it does force you to spend time and effort on security. Nor do usernames and passwords to computer resources and websites make you less free; but they do entail the inconvenience of having to remember them or of buying an application like Password Agent. Or, again, when a mountain climber checks his gear to ensure that it is in working order, he is not exchanging any liberty for safety.

In other words, the money you spend on protection cannot be spent in other ways, and as a result your happiness is lower than it would be if no dangers existed.

Increased spending on security does not therefore limit liberty; only violence and threat of violence can do so. Further, the government is supposed to secure our very freedom. Thus, greater security, according to the government's own logic, should increase liberty. The idea here is that, as senator Pat Roberts from Kansas recently put it, "you have no civil liberties if you are dead." So, a curtailment of certain liberties will allegedly bring about greater liberty overall. The government's spying on us, for example, though it may coerce or intimidate some people, will make everybody on the net freer, as will holding prisoners without trial, torture, and so on.

One problem with this argument is that threats to our lives and property can occur not only from foreign terrorists or domestic criminals but from the US government, as well. People have lost sight of that. Remember the great libertarian insight that governments can be likened to organized gangs of thieves and murderers. I admit that it may be in their interest to control their rapacious instincts somewhat in order to prevent overexploitation of the populace and thus to avoid killing the proverbial goose. Then one can channel his cunning mind and iron willpower into ruling the world.

The more wealth is out there, in other words, the more there is to steal. Many so-called economists concentrate precisely on teaching the government thieves how best to manage society. Hence, for example, the supply-siders' emphasis on the Laffer curve. The state, whose purpose is, again, the control of violence in order to prevent overexploitation, should understand precisely how this is to be done. It's a crucial part of the "art of statecraft." By setting the taxes just right, they can maximize revenues, and with a lot of money they can crush or buy off other centers of authority. (In contrast, the rulers of Third World nations are too savage. Like wild animals they aim to destroy, not to control. God bless America where our war leaders are wise and possess the ruthless self-control necessary in their single-minded pursuit of power. But every so often they need help. This is where "economists" come in.)

Nevertheless, this incentive is fairly weak. The US government presents its own threats to liberty. Its claims of promoting greater total liberty -- that the threats from "one's own" government are smaller than the threats from the "outside" -- are just that -- unsubstantiated and, I think, implausible. It is, on the contrary, the biggest aggressor on person and property, both of its own "subjects" and foreigners.

The second difficulty is whether the government protects us well. The key to high-quality security is the ability to prohibit access to a resource or property by unauthorized users and, once an authorized user is in the system, to limit his access privileges appropriately. But -- look! -- this is precisely what the regime of private property and freedom of contract does for all members of society. The owners decide who gets invited onto their properties and, for those who do, what they are allowed to do with or on it. (Thus, for instance, ideally, the law-abiding citizens would be able freely to carry guns into airplanes, while potentially dangerous individuals would be prohibited from doing so.) They have both the requisite incentives and knowledge to protect themselves effectively. Governments have neither.

To continue with our example of airports, the state is either politically correct by being random and not homing in on the truly suspicious fellows or ridiculously paranoid when the security bureaucrats target and harass those who clearly present no risk. Further, since security is an economic good, it is best if each individual or company could decide for oneself what kind of protection to purchase and how much. Yet here the government imposes uniformity without a good reason. And it is far from clear whether or not these uniform security measures are any good, anyway.

Another illustration might be the FDA. This monopoly consumer protection agency is at the same time too conservative in not allowing beneficial drugs and technologies to reach the market quickly enough (thereby being complicit in numerous deaths -- sometimes called "statistical murder"), and very much remiss in its duties to monitor the well-established companies (which it essentially protects against the newcomers) for outrageous claims. Fully privatized consumer protection would do its job better. The same thing is true for most other agencies. Whether the costs of their actions are explicit, as in the death toll and destruction in wars, or unseen as in the economic improvement that does not take place because of taxation, regulations, business cycles, and so on, the government's security provision is less than optimal.

With privately provided security there would be competition among firms specializing in protection. Companies would struggle to differentiate themselves from the rest in the industry by offering better quality of safety and security and lower prices. Those that failed to serve their customers would be eliminated, unlike the government whose only response to failure is to increase the funding to the offending agency. Innovation would be the rule not the exception.

For instance, security is often obtained through insurance. Insurance companies would insist that (say) airlines invest into significant and effective security measures in order to lower their premiums. And security would be married to courtesy, such that the customers would be inconvenienced as little as possible. Consumers, not bureaucrats, would rule.

In sum, then, (1) security and liberty are perfectly compatible with each other; (2) the state is a danger in its own right; and (3) it is only minimally competent as a provider of protection.

July 29, 2006

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