Isn’t There a Tradeoff Between Liberty And Security?

I’ve recently come across several prominent quotes about the relationship between liberty and security. All of the quotes deny that there is a straightforward tradeoff between liberty and security–but each does so for a different reason.

Here are the quotes, along with their sources and a few reactions.

1. 9/11 Commission Report (2004):

The choice between security and liberty is a false choice, as nothing is more likely to endanger America’s liberties than the success of a terrorist attack at home.

This statement assumes that “the success of a terrorist attack at home” will cause a large reduction in liberty, presumably by prompting reactive security measures. Given that essentially political assumption, the statement endorses pre-attack steps to stave off attacks. By thus erring on the side of security in times of peace, before an attack, America can avoid a much larger reduction in liberty. Or, to put the point more pithily, the nation should sacrifice a little liberty today in order to enjoy more liberty tomorrow.

But where does this statement leave liberty? Decidedly in second place, it seems. During peaceful times, security should be given priority and liberty is consequently sacrificed. And, if worse times come, then liberty will really suffer. The “choice” is therefore “false” only in that one of the two values–security–always dominates over the other. Perhaps this strategy really is the most effective way to maximize liberty over time. But even if so, it arguably operates more by choosing between security and liberty than by reconciling them.

2. Justice Kennedy in Boumediene v. Bush (2008):

Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law.

I once heard a TV commentator invoke this quote as though it meant that there was no need to balance liberty and security, since the Constitution guaranteed that Americans would enjoy them both. But does this quote actually say that we can enjoy all desired liberty, and have unlimited security, too? And even if it did, is it realistic to think that the law can make such guarantees?

I read this quote differently. To my mind, there is no guarantee in this statement. Liberty and security “can” be reconciled, but might not be. Achieving this reconciliation is daunting work and it could go wrong–as indeed it has gone wrong at various times in U.S. history. Instead of being a source of guarantees, the law strikes some specific balances while creating a “framework” for new balancing in the future. Put another way, “our law” helps the American people figure out how to reconcile liberty and security in light of new challenges. The passage’s evident optimism stems from the belief that Americans actually “are” taking advantage of the law’s framework every day and with each new generation.

The point, in other words, is that liberty and security have to be balanced in concrete situations. And law can help with that difficult task.

3. Report of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies (Dec. 2013):

Some people believe that the two forms of security [that is, national security and the people’s security in their persons, houses, papers, and effects] are in irreconcilable conflict with one another. They contend that in the modern era … the nation must choose between them. We firmly reject this view.

This passage can be read in either of two ways, neither of which is particularly helpful. First, it might mean that there is no instance in which the nation must forgo some amount of either liberty or security in order to preserve the other. That strong claim calls to mind the confident TV commentator noted above and seems obviously false. Every time “the nation” chooses whether to adopt a new restriction on airline passengers, for instance, it is balancing liberty and security against one another. More of one sometimes means less of the other, and it would be odd if the Review Group denied that point.

Second, the passage might mean that the nation never has to make a categorical choice between having security (but no liberty) and having liberty (but no security). That weaker claim seems true but of limited use. Liberty and security are abstract values that are achieved in degrees. And as with any pair of goods, the optimal balance includes a significant amount of both. The key question is how and when to strike this kind of balance–yet the statement offers no help on that score. Still, this statement may be useful insofar as it resists pessimism about whether fair-minded balancing can realistically occur.

4. Judge Pauley in ACLU v. Clapper (SDNY Dec. 2013):

 The success of one [that is, liberty or security] helps protect the other.

This statement appears inside a paragraph that draws on the Boumediene and 9/11 Report quotes listed above, so it might be particularly unfair to pluck this one from context. Still, I think that this brief statement captures an important idea that isn’t present in the other statements above.

The distinctive contribution is the notion that the liberty/security tradeoff falsely assumes a zero sum game, where one unit of liberty necessarily comes at the price of a similar amount of security. Instead, the liberty/security pie might grow or shrink, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes a particularly wise decision can result in greater security and greater liberty. Of course, hard choices between liberty and security will always be hard, but they can at least be made easier by increasing the status quo ante amount of both values. However, this happy story comes with the potential for its opposite: foolish decisions can deplete both liberty and security, making later tradeoffs between them even harder than they have to be.

Which of these quotes is the most accurate? Are there others I should have included?



Filed under Security

2 responses to “Isn’t There a Tradeoff Between Liberty And Security?

  1. Alex

    There seems to be a missing sentiment (if not a quote) which says that the loss of liberty does not generate security. In other words, there is no evidence that the TSA, NSA, etc have objectively increased security post 9-11. Instead, attempted terrorists have been foiled by passengers (Underwear/Shoe Bomber), regular police (Kelvin Massey), or succeeded despite having huge, and suspicious footprints (Boston Marathon, Ft. Hood).

  2. Peter Gerdes

    This is just silly political wordplay.

    They are just redefining “liberty” to be “justified/appropriate liberty” and defining out cases like the liberty to build a (perfect safe) reactor producing plutonium in your back yard.

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