How much freedom should we trade for our security?
April 22, 2002 9:29 AM   Subscribe

How much freedom should we trade for our security? That is the title of this years Economist/Shell essay competition. The winner will receive $20,000 as well as inclusion in The Economist: The World in 2003. The closing date is August 15. Anyone feel like entering? If I can learn to write English in time I may submit an essay that takes the form of a discussion between a 68 year old Japanese American ex-internee and a 7 year old Israeli girl.
posted by RobertLoch (14 comments total)
The site also has the previous winning entries, but in .pdf format. Looks like you gotta work for it.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:51 AM on April 22, 2002 has a permanent quotation of Benjamin Franklin on its sidebar, who I agree with on this matter:

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

So in other words, none. Ever. That's really the whole *point* of freedom, as I understand it, and freedom is all that really matters. If freedom causes problems, you cannot solve the problems by taking away freedom.
posted by Settle at 3:51 PM on April 23, 2002

While I'm wholly unwilling to give up my freedoms for security, I'll happily relinquish them for some delicious tacos.
posted by Danelope at 3:52 PM on April 23, 2002

freedom is all that really matters

What if you're dead?

What if you're not dead, but you're too afraid to risk flying in an airplane, or even riding a bus? Or maybe even go out after dark? How "free" are you then?
posted by mattpfeff at 4:05 PM on April 23, 2002

Well, you have to be practical about it. I mean, even after 9-11, flying wasn't all that dangerous.

It's being in tall buildings you want to avoid...

Anyway, the real question isn't actually how much freedom you want to give up, but how much privacy.
posted by delmoi at 4:12 PM on April 23, 2002

Being afraid doesn't take away your freedom. It takes considerable effort and courage to secure freedom, there's no reason why it shouldn't take some courage to maintain it.

If you are afraid to ride a bus or an airplane, you are limiting your own freedom. Additionally, the people who want to make you afraid are limiting your freedom.

A great many people in the history of humanity have had no meaningful freedom at all. They've had their potential limited. When anyone has any freedom, it is because someone fought for it beforehand. The tendency of things is of course not towards freedom but authoritarianism. This tendency is constant. No matter how perfect and free your country is you must always be fighting this tendency. Most Americans don't seem to understand this. They're content to let the forces of darkness trample their lands. They sit idle while corruption and compromise stalk this country like two big stalking things.

Plus, delmoi, although you're perfectly right about privacy, it is implied that a loss of privacy is a restriction on freedom, specifically, one's freedom to do what one likes without having to fear the GOVERNMENT SPYING ON THEM. All restrictions on any freedoms will fail in the long run, and all restrictions of freedom which we've learned to adapt to will be our undoing. It is as certain as the sun's rise and the crowing of the rooster, or some other ridiculous simile.
posted by Settle at 4:45 PM on April 23, 2002

If you are afraid to ride a bus or an airplane, you are limiting your own freedom. Additionally, the people who want to make you afraid are limiting your freedom.

You said, above, "freedom is all that really matters". Obviously, however, that doesn't really help answer the question, if, as you later acknowledged, lack of security results in less freedom as well.

The question isn't, Is freedom good, it's, How do we secure it? That's all.
posted by mattpfeff at 5:23 PM on April 23, 2002

We have more to fear from those who claim to defend our freedom than from those who supposedly attack it.

posted by Mars Saxman at 6:03 PM on April 23, 2002

We can't secure our freedom all the time. Who said we could? Why would it be the case that we can always be free all the time? We have an army because shit happens, and we try to do the best we can to clean it up. But we'll always be vulnerable. Anyone who wants to blow something up can and will if they put their mind to it.

Unless you want to make the rest of the world stop hating us, don't expect safety and complete freedom. We still live a much easier life than people elsewhere, don't we? So what are you complaining about?

The human animal has never been domesticated.
posted by Settle at 7:33 PM on April 23, 2002

The human animal has never been domesticated.

Is that why you talk about piss all the time?
posted by alterego at 9:12 PM on April 23, 2002

So what are you complaining about?

Are you talking to me? I'm not complaining about anything; I just observed that what you've said here completely misses the point of the question.

It seems clear (if not trivial) that some freedoms must be sacrificed in order for society to function effectively. For example, the freedom to dump your trash in the middle of a busy intersection in the city.

And clearly some tradeoffs are (in principle) worth it, when it comes to security vs. freedom; for example, I'd happily exchange the freedom to have more than one carry-on item if it would reduce the total risk of a highjacking by 99 percent. (This outlandish example is simply to make the point that freedom is not an absolute value, and that some freedoms are worth sacrificing for big enough returns.)

So it's a fair question, How much freedom should we trade for our security?

And if you want to discuss the question, I'd think you'd do so by trying to suggest some way to draw the line, instead of simply proclaiming general statements of principle, which in no way contribute anything toward finding an answer.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:57 PM on April 23, 2002

That's a whole hell of a lot harder.


Also I find your pragmatism rather refreshing. I'll try to get you that answer with as little pontificating as I can.

Okay. Human government is essentially an illusion. We still have control over our thoughts and will regardless of whatever laws are held in place to restrict them. In a sense, the freedom we discuss is totally irrelevant - it comes and it goes in cycles, of revolution, democracy, corruption, dictatorship, etc. These cycles cannot be stopped.

Shit that's not helpful either. Okay okay:

Well, I don't think one's will enters into this. That's my final answer. The acceptance of privacy invasion will come despite the best efforts of people with time enough to protest. What will happen will happen. It is impossible to assign value to any risks, as we don't know their outcome. And it is impossible to evaluate principles upon which to act without postulating their outcome.

As far as prediction is concerned, I don't think anything can stop us down the road to a police state, it isn't a slippery slope but a natural conclusion. The freedoms that you speak of giving up in your example are reasonable, but they merely make you comfortable, which is precisely what you'll try to be anyway. The will of the people is towards comfort and safety, and concerns of principle are very remote to most, partially due to the fact that, as I said, evaluation of principle is really impossible. We live in the now.

The majority will carry less baggage, but even if it did help security, it would establish or encourage a trend towards trading freedom for security, which is bad. Of course, the freedom we'll give up last is the freedom to be comfortable. When that option disappears, unrest takes its place. So I suppose to answer your question, in my opinion, giving up a freedom is the same as giving up all freedom - we limit our potential to insure against threats which may or may not exist, we trade something for nothing, as it were.

So basically, there is no answer. It is to be determined by the greater will. It is something one predicts, not something one solves.

Anyway, hope I didn't discourage you.
posted by Settle at 1:08 AM on April 24, 2002

What if you're dead?

used to be that people thought liberty was worth dying for.
posted by tolkhan at 6:55 AM on April 24, 2002

So in other words, none. Ever. That's really the whole *point* of freedom, as I understand it, and freedom is all that really matters.

"freedom" is such a loaded word that we revere it without defining it - but our freedom is already restricted by every single law that exists. Those laws specifically state what we can't do, what freedoms we don't have. The idea is that those are freedoms which impinge on other people's rights - the example above of not having the freedom to dump your garbage in your neighbors yard or whatever, is to do with teh right of your neighbor not to have you dump your garbage there... SO: we all agree about certain freedoms being restricted and certain others not: but then there are the fuzzy lines. Is having your bag searched before you get on a plane inhibiting your freedom? Or are you intruding on the rights of your neighbors not to be hijacked if you refuse to be searched?

I was on a bus once with a friend when a bunch of cops in Drug Squad T-shirts came on board and asked to search everyone's carry on luggage. My friend and I were indignant and refused, amazed that most of the passengers happily complied, amazed that they would so easily give up their rights... but later I thought, I get searched every time I get on an airplane, why did this seem so upsetting? And I think it's got a lot to do with what you're used to, what you take for granted.

If you are afraid to ride a bus or an airplane, you are limiting your own freedom.

...specifically, one's freedom to do what one likes without having to fear the GOVERNMENT SPYING ON THEM.

funny when it's fear of death, we're imposing it on ourselves but when it's fear of being looked at, it's being imposed on us. I don't think you're alone here either; I think the cliche 'I was so embarassed I could have died' sort of attitude really does inform a lot of our approaches. We're ultimately most worried about watched; maybe we'd rather risk death than let everyone (the gov, society) see us naked...
posted by mdn at 8:37 AM on April 24, 2002

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