A few months ago, I saw a quote on Facebook that got me thinking. I can’t find the exact post, but it was something along the lines of “He who trades liberty for security deserves neither and will lose both.” I’m aware of a similar quote attributed to Ben Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The quote I saw was attributed to someone else and was much more simplistic and caustic than Franklin’s.
From the start, I want to say I don’t know the context of either quote and don’t wish to comment on what the authors meant. I also think Franklin’s quote is worlds better than what I originally saw on Facebook. What irritates me is the way these quotes are usually used in persuasive writing, indicating that the tension between liberty and security is something a “deserving” man will not feel, or at least will not succumb to.
Frankly, I think that is nonsense. As far as I can see, the entire project of civilization and society is to decide which liberties are worth trading for which securities. At a very basic level, we trade the freedom to kill for the security of not being killed. Hunter-gatherers traded the freedom to wander at will for the security of a stable harvest. When we marry, we (most of us, anyway) trade sexual liberty for the emotional, financial, and genetic security of a spouse.
There is a cost involved in each of these decisions, as there is in any decision. Allowing someone the legal power to punish us when we kill limits our ability to advance our own interests. The paleo-minded believe our health suffered when we traded wild boar for wheat. And anyone who’s had kids or a roommate to offset housing costs knows the sacrifices involved in that trade.
Much of the current political debate in America centers around which liberties we’re willing to sacrifice for which securities. This, I think, is normal. But very few speak in those terms. Depending upon a speaker’s political affiliations, we hear about either a government confiscating guns to solidify power or a crazy group of gun-fanatics who think a couple of kids’ deaths are worth the fun of owning a rifle. We fear a 1984-style dystopia or we don’t care about the poor. We use the term “right” indiscriminately: I have a right to own a gun, to control my own reproduction, and even, according to the UN, to freely access the internet.
Liberty and security are in tension with one another. I don’t see any way of getting around that. In that context, it seems to me that, historically, inalienable rights are simply the group of liberties the founders believed weren’t worth trading, no matter what. I realize this language implies a certain intention on their part, and I apologize. I’m hardly a scholar on the subject; many could speak better to the founders’ beliefs than I can. But whether or not they believed the idea of rights carried moral weight, what they did, practically, was to attempt to protect a certain set of freedoms from future trade.
We can discuss whether a particular trade is worth its costs, whether we have an accurate picture of what the costs are, or whether there would be unforeseen consequences (as there generally are). We can take a step back and consider the common values necessary for the discussion. What we can’t do is pretend we’re not, every day, trading our liberty for security. What we can’t do is draw our own lines, pretend we don’t, and then label those who draw them differently as unworthy of liberty.
To be transparent, I lean toward libertarianism. I don’t want to live in a world where the government can fairly consider legislation on soda size because they pay our medical costs and therefore have an interest in our health. On the flip side, I’m glad home ownership is a viable option for me, that it doesn’t depend on my relative ability to defend it, and that if my husband dies I don’t have to fear invading marauders stealing my home.
But I have no interest here in making a case either for libertarianism or for a nanny state. All I’m saying is that it would be helpful if we knew what we mean when we discuss our rights. It’s one thing to claim a right to property in that it would be wrong for someone to take what’s mine. It’s another to discuss a government defense of my right to property. The first is a moral claim. The second is practical, and with it inevitably comes a justifiable government interest in what I’m doing with my property.
Confusing the two claims makes for unproductive political discourse. It also means we allow our government to make these trades for us without considering the cost because we do not view them as trades. We can’t discuss our right to bear arms and pretend there is no cost to gun ownership or that the government has no interest in that cost. We have already given the government an interest in that we have asked them to protect us and to protect our property. What we can do is discuss whether we’re willing to accept that cost, or, put another way, whether we find the cost of making the opposite decision unbearable.