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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Liberty and Security

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.

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I read this article this morning. I’m angry.

The author is discussing the allegiance women owe feminism and what that allegiance means for them practically. In the opening paragraph, she mentions her desire to “smack the next idiot who tells me that raising her children full time…is her feminist choice. Who can possibly take feminism seriously,” she says, “when it allows everything, as long as women choose it?”

Well, I suppose I agree with the last half of the statement. It is indeed idiotic to make equality dependent upon a legally-defined absolute freedom of choice. Men don’t have that, and women oughtn’t either.

The first statement, though, gets my blood boiling. Why does opting out of corporate America to spend time doing something worthwhile make one an idiot? Let’s look at what her arguments.

“If the [feminist] movement had been serious about being serious then the idea could not have caught on that equal is how you feel. Or that how anyone feels about anything matters at all. Men know better. They look at numbers….” Annoying gender stereotypes aside, there’s some truth there. Equal is not about how you feel. So what is it about? Numbers, apparently. What numbers? Ah, there they are: “We still earn 81 percent of what men do….”

Setting aside the issue of public policy’s role in fixing social issues, I agree that one’s salary ought not be dependent upon one’s sex. I’m grateful that women have broken into careers previously considered men’s domain, broadening the options for me and my daughters. But I don’t think I could disagree more vehemently with this little gem I found further down the page: “There really is only one kind of equality — it precedes all the emotional hullabaloo — and it’s economic.”

What?

Thankfully for me, she clarifies: “If you can’t pay your own rent, you are not an adult. You are a dependent.” And there it is. My value to society, sex regardless, is strictly economic. I owe it to my feminist sisters – indeed, to America – to be a good worker and a good consumer. This is sickening. It is the ultimate in elitism. It says to people who value happiness, family, faith – whatever – over the accruing of wealth, that they have chosen badly. It says to a woman accepting a lower paying job to spend more time with her kids that she is devaluing himself. It says to a man choosing to be a stay-at-home dad that he’s lost his worth to society. It has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with Marxist materialism.

She goes on: “Seriously: Did Romney actually tell his wife that her job was more important than his? So condescending. If he thought that, he’d be doing it.” I can’t speak for Romney – he always seemed kind of slimy to me – but I know my own situation. I stay at home. I raise my children, grow things, interact with my community, nourish my family, read books and entertain ideas while Stephen drives an hour each way to sit at a desk making phone calls about medical supplies for nine hours every day. I can guarantee that he would enjoy his life more if our roles were switched. He is not being condescending when he praises what I do. He wishes he could, too. But he is actively sacrificing himself, giving up a good portion of the few hours he has on this earth, so that I can do it. I suppose if everything were really about power and greed I would be suspicious when Stephen tells me my job is more valuable while choosing to do something else. But it’s not. There’s this crazy little thing called love – ever heard of it? – that calls us to consider others’ well-being when we make choices. It calls us, men and women, to be dependent and to serve.

I am well aware that the day may come when our survival depends upon me working outside the home. That’s fine. I consider myself intelligent and able-bodied enough both to find work and to opt out of the crazy consumerism that enslaves us to that work.

But the glorification of that work is disgusting. We have been fed a grossly inaccurate idea of what we need, and this idea has been used to enslave us to largely meaningless work. We spend our lives fueling corporate America in return for a paycheck that we give right back when they come out with a new ipad. I do not mean to speak for everyone. Many people – doctors, teachers, social workers, and many others – fill meaningful and much-needed roles in society. We couldn’t get by without them. And there are others who find fulfillment in gaming the system, in playing with stocks or creating compelling new businesses. They enjoy what they do and support themselves in the process. More power to them. But most of us have bought into a system that relies on minimum wage workers just as much as it does doctors, yet values them much less. Most people spend their lives in boring careers and end up with little more than when they began. If I can opt out of that without putting myself on welfare, what’s wrong with that?

“To be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege….” Absolutely. And it is our hope, as a family, that by being careful with our money now, in a few years we can afford to keep Stephen home, too. But oops. She doesn’t mean privilege in a good way. Look at the rest of the paragraph:

“To be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege, and most of the housewives I have ever met — none of whom do anything around the house — live in New York City and Los Angeles, far from Peoria. Only in these major metropolises are there the kinds of jobs in finance and entertainment that allow for a family to live luxe on a single income. In any case, having forgotten everything but the lotus position, these women are the reason their husbands think all women are dumb, and I don’t blame them. As it happens, fewer than 5 percent of the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, 16 percent of corporate executives, and 17 percent of law partners are female. The men, the husbands of the 1 percent, are on trading floors or in office complexes with other men all day, and to the extent that they see anyone who isn’t male it’s pretty much just secretaries and assistants. And they go home to…whatever. What are they supposed to think? They pay gargantuan American Express bills and don’t know why or what for. Then they give money to Mitt Romney.”

Look, lady. We live in suburban Cleveland on one income. We pay our bills and manage to live “luxe” by global standards. My husband doesn’t think I’m dumb because I’m not. If feminism is what you say it is, it has mixed itself with materialism and consumerism and offered me a role in society that is generally uninteresting and, frankly, dehumanizing. I hardly think it’s dumb for me to refuse to be a cog in your little Marxist machine. The kind of life we’ve chosen hardly allows me the option of “going to Jivamukti classes and pedicure appointments while the nanny babysits.” What is a Jivamukti class? This life requires a lot of work, much of which is geared toward making our future more home-centered for both of us.

I don’t want to go much into gender roles here, except to say I think the twenties’ housewife feminine ideal is just as poisonous as the ideal presented in this article. I don’t think all women need to choose as I have. But I wish people could see how insulting this kind of thinking is. It is insulting to women to say they’d be more valuable if they were more like men. It is insulting to men to act as though they care only about economic power. It is insulting to all of us to tie purchasing power to personal worth.

If I may borrow from the author’s gender stereotypes for a moment, I’d like to suggest she take a closer look at the women of this world. Maybe they know something the men don’t.

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