Liberty or Security - A False Dilemma

Tom Shipka

Many have expressed dismay over the Patriot Act and other laws and practices adopted by the United States since 9/11 to guard against the threat of terrorism. In essence, the critics charge that the U.S. is sacrificing liberty at the altar of security.

Although I, too, have misgivings about many features of the Patriot Act, not to mention poorly justified, planned, and executed military initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq, I also believe that the line between prudent security measures and overzealous infringement of liberties is not as clear and distinct as one would hope, especially in a climate where suicidal religious zealots perceive every American death as strengthening their claim on heaven. I also recognize that without security there can be no liberty. Indeed, this is arguably the central insight of two of the greatest political theorists in history - Thomas Hobbes and John Locke - despite the fact that the former espoused the cause of Monarchy and absolute government, while the latter espoused the cause of Parliament and limited government, in 17th century England.

In his magnum opus, Leviathan, published in 1651, Hobbes tells us that liberty, the power to do as one wishes, is dependent upon security (CH XIV). Humans, he says, as pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding animals, will seek their own pleasure and advantage, even at the expense of their neighbors, unless there is a recognized law-maker who possesses sufficient power to make laws and to enforce them. Absent this, Hobbes says, "the life of man" is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Chapter XIII) Through an explicit or implicit social contract, Hobbes says, we collectively agree to establish and recognize a political sovereign, a leviathan, whose power protects our life, liberty, and possessions.

Similarly, in his Second Treatise of Government, published some 39 years after Hobbes' Leviathan, John Locke, though seeking to limit the powers of government, recognized, as Hobbes did, the necessity of government to provide security, and the link between security and liberty. Locke argues that in the absence of government, society suffers three serious defects ('wants'): 1) lack of a settled, known, established law; 2) lack of a fair and impartial judge; and 3) lack of the power to impose a proper sentence on a wrongdoer. The purpose of government, which people establish through a social contract, Locke says, is to overcome these defects. So essential is a stable and strong government to rights and liberties, Locke observes, that nearly all humans past and present "take sanctuary under the established laws of government and therein seek the preservation of their property." (Shipka, Minton, Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, 5/e, p. 393) "Property" is Locke's term for our rights under the moral law to life, liberty, and possessions ("estate").

Can government err in the quest to secure us from terrorism and other threats to our welfare? Of course it can. Public discussion and debate are important to help us identify and correct these errors. Nevertheless, we should never forget that security is indispensable to liberty and that no one has a foolproof plan for the perfect blend of security and liberty in the dangerous world in which we live today.

Copyright © 2006 by Tom Shipka