Freedom vs. Safety

The exaltation of freedom over safety is part of our national DNA. America was founded, invented, and peopled by those who chose freedom over safety.

Ben Franklin:

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

Patrick Henry:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

Sam Adams:

If you love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.

State motto of New Hampshire:

Live Free or Die.

Barbara Ehrenreich, via Legal Satyricon and Mark Kernes:

Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that.By signing Jefferson’s text, the signers of the declaration were putting their lives on the line. Britain was then the world’s greatest military power, against which a bunch of provincial farmers had little chance of prevailing. Benjamin Franklin wasn’t kidding around with his quip about hanging together or hanging separately. If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors. 

A frontier is never safe, but people from Europe sought the frontier across the Atlantic to be free, and their descendants sought the frontier across the Appalachians, then the frontier across the Mississippi, then the frontier across the Rockies, until eventually they hit the Pacific Ocean (and started to look spaceward) — not for safety, but for freedom.

So when I wrote my comments for the dedication of the founding documents in the Harris County Juvenile Courthouse, I wrote about freedom and safety, and the Founders’ focus on the former rather than the latter. I took it for granted that my audience would agree that freedom is a greater good than safety.

But there’s a dissenting opinion. Commenter “Y” left a comment in response, I replied to her, Fresno criminal-defense lawyer Rick Horowitz (Unspun) posted on the subject, and Y surreplied. Y’s point (read the comments I linked to for her argument and context): “Safety is a necessary condition for the value of liberty.” Philosopher Jeff Mason writes,

It is true that you are free to choose to live or to die, and the manner of your life and death, but what kind of freedom is it that forces you to choose between evils just to preserve your life a little longer in constant danger?

I disagreed at first but, on reflection, I think this is true . . . to a point. A person must have a certain amount of bodily security before she can even think about liberty. So when Y says, “safety is a necessary condition for the value of liberty”, I can’t entirely disagree.

There is a difference, however, between the dangers that might naturally prevent our thinking about liberty, and those that should absolutely always yield to liberty.

The difference is the same as the difference between those dangers that we are physiologically prepared for by evolution, and those that are creations of civilization.

Our bodies have fear systems that are engineered by nature to respond to the sort of threats that human beings faced before they became civilized; these are the sort of threats that other animals face: generally, predators. Our fear systems kick in to help us react in three phases, all in a matter of minutes:

  • Pre-encounter (“vigilance”, information-gathering, yellow);
  • Post-encounter (“fear”, decision-making, orange); and
  • Circa-strike (“action”, action, red).

I say “In a matter of minutes” because a) when our brains were evolving, the threats we faced lasted only that long (30 minutes after you first see the sabretooth, you’re either safe or dinner); and b) part of the fear response involves the dumping of the stress hormone cortisol, long-term exposure to which is really bad for our health, into our bloodstreams. When we’re dealing with matters of immediate survival — when the cortisol tap has opened up — freedom is secondary.

It’s very rare, though, in modern life, that we’re dealing with matters of immediate survival. When we are dealing with such matters, government is not competent to protect us: if your response to the modern sabretooth is to dial 9-1-1, you’re going to be dinner before the cops turn up.

What we face, however, and what government aspires to protect us from in exchange for our freedom, is the generalized anxiety that results from artificial stimulation of the fear centers of our brains. “Suppose I live in such a crime-infested slum that my house will be burned down within two weeks,” writes Y, and “it is lucky for us that murder is rare.” If someone wants to burn down your house, they’re going to do it, but you don’t live in such a crime-infested slum and you’re so far from living in such a crime-infested slum that the argument is farcical, and you don’t need to breathe a sigh of relief that murder is rare. Your world of fear is not really the world we live in. The government isn’t holding back some vast tide of arsonists and murderers that will devour all decent people if we slash government back to next to nothing.

There are a few dangerous people around, but the government (not to mention the media and other corporations) have an interest in blowing every danger out of proportion. Humans don’t manage risk very well, so it’s not hard for the bulk of the population to be managed to spend much of their lives in the yellow and orange. Drip, drip, drip goes the cortisol. Anxiety and depression are up; blood sugar is out of whack, bone density down, abdominal fat up. All thanks to cortisol. Cortisol damages the hippocampus, one job of which is to regulate cortisol production. So more cortisol is produced, more damage done.

Meanwhile, in our state of heightened response we look to government to protect us from the bogeymen it has generated in our heads.

Sam Adams again, the father of the U.S. Revolution:

Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: first, a right to life; second, to liberty; third, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are the evident branches of the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature. All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please; and in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another.

In other words, we have the right to defend our own lives, liberty, and property as well as we can. (There wasn’t even an organized police force in the United States until the 19th century; the Founders created a state without a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. Discuss.)

Do we have to have a degree of safety to enjoy freedom? Sure. The bottom level on Maslow’s Hierarchy has to be satisfied. But guess what: there’s no sabretooth breathing down your neck. The barbarians are not at the gates of your condo, which is fortunate because if they are you’re on your own — the government is busy popping hookers and crack users, and won’t show up when you call. 

The costs of relying on government to keep us safe are manifold. We have to pay for it, which is in itself a deprivation of liberty; since government is inefficient and blows dangers out of proportion we pay a lot more than it would cost us to do it ourselves. We have to give up freedom from governmental intrusion in our own lives, because government can’t discriminate ab initio between the good guys and the bad guys and requires the power to meddle as much in our affairs as in those of the ones who might do us harm. We become addicted, because once government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence we have no way to defend our own lives, liberty, and property except at the pleasure of the government.

A certain amount of government is inevitable. If you were to start afresh with an anarchical society, the most powerful individuals would gather power to themselves until they formed de facto governments. The beauty of the U.S. Constitution is that, recognizing that government was inevitable, the Founders created a government with its power over the People limited in every way they could think of.

A certain amount of government protection is arguably necessary. But we have far more government “protection” than the minimum that we need. We’re far beyond the point at which individual liberty should yield to
individual safety, and most societies have been for most of the last
five thousand years. Ever increase in governmental power beyond that point provides at best a tiny incremental increase in temporary safety at a major cost to freedom.

Cut government by 90%, eliminate 90% of the criminal laws and the prosecutors and the criminal judges and the criminal-defense lawyers, and you’re little less safe but a lot more free.

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0 responses to “Freedom vs. Safety”

  1. A truly great post.
    When we begin the task of defining liberty and sussing out how important safety is to liberty, I think we must stop and reflect how others live.

    You are correct; I do live in sufficient safety to have liberty of value. My point was narrow — almost trite — when you look at my own life.

    But consider for a moment those who live in a current state of war that claims the lives of their neighbors and their families. Consider those who live in areas of almost daily terrorism. Consider those who live in countries with an appalling disregard for basic human rights.

    And, closer to home, consider those who live in projects run by gangs.

    I’m lucky enough to have enough safety to have true and valuable liberty. But have you ever told a kid growing up in the ghetto that he can be “whatever he wants to be”? If he’s polite (!), he’ll remind you that most of his family was killed by gangs and he really needs to take care of his little sister. Does he have liberty, technically? Sure. But does he have “valuable” liberty? Eh, not so much. At least not nearly as much as we do.

    Your point is entirely correct when you consider those lucky enough to live a life like ours. (Makes me recall the book “The Bell Curve,” by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray.) We may be surrounded by “people like us,” but our lives do not necessarily reflect the lives of the majority. The challenge for every government, and every statute, is to use an even hand throughout the various cultures and walks of life. We can’t use one law in the ghetto and another in the McMansion neighborhoods.

    You write, “There is a difference, however, between the dangers that might naturally prevent our thinking about liberty, and those that should absolutely always yield to liberty.”
    The difference is between the real dangers and the false but perceived dangers. My fictionalized fear of someone burning down my house, or a tiger attacking me, is a false danger. But suppose I live in Nigeria? Now my fear isn’t so rhetorical. It’s real. That real danger naturally prevents my thinking about liberty. We don’t want the government protecting us from fictionalized dangers. But we certainly need the government to protect us from real dangers. The real challenge for all of us is to distinguish the real dangers from the fictionalized dangers.

    The intriguing point you make is that “government is inefficient and blows dangers out of proportion we pay a lot more than it would cost us to do it ourselves.”
    Hmmmm. What do you mean? Do you really want every Joe Schmo to take it upon himself to ensure justice? If not our government, then who?

    If the government has been overstepping its bounds and is prosecuting crimes based on fictionalized dangers rather than real dangers, can you provide a few examples? Are the dangers fictionalized in one part of town, but real in another? Should the enforcement of our laws depend on whether the danger is “real” in the area of town that the crime is committed?

  2. Mark,

    If I believed in reincarnation I swear i was talking to the likes of Thomas Jefferson!!! So is this the type of response one should expect to get when they strike a cord of interest!?! Sorry I wasn’t able to make Houston between my late start and the snow in LA I was happy to have made it at all!!!


  3. I’m wondering how many of your readers got the yellow and orange bit. (Me, I spent literally years in yellow, every time I went out of my home. Then again, it may not have been totally irrational; I had a stalker making death threats. Then again, it may have been, after the first while; he never did try anything.)

    That aside, great post; no wonder both you and His Prickliness deserve to win the youknowwhat that you’ve been fighting over.

    As to the government prosecuting people over fictional threats, well, I’m not sure how many were eventually prosecuted, but I’ve noted more than one suspected (and, for all I know, coincidentally actual) terrorist arrested for photographing a targeted site. Trouble is, other than in fictional accounts, photographing a target in advance and as part of planning for a terrorist attack doesn’t seem to have ever happened.

    Y, even in the worst neighborhoods, it’s rare almost to the point of nonexistence that any, much less most, of a given person’s family has been killed by gangs. In the year that Minneapolis earned its Murderapolis designation, for example, we had just under 100 murders. Not quite all of them were for business competitive advantage — a few were of uninvolved witnesses to ballistic business competition removal — but almost all were. (I don’t mean to minimize the damage to living an ordinarily decent life that the gangbangers do — it’s huge — but I think it’s important to criticize it for what it actually does.)

    And, yeah, the Founders very deliberately created a state where the State not only did not but could not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Understandable, given that the Shot Heard Round the World was fired at state minions acting to enforce a commonsense gun control measure.

  4. “Y” said: “And, closer to home, consider those who live in projects run by gangs.”

    The situation in some inner cities is indeed dire. But the situation is entirely the result of the government “protecting” us from the “evil” of drug use. Absent the government prohibition on (some) drugs, the gangs would have no reason to exist, much less to compete for turf. (not to mention the money to buy the weapons.) Jim Beam and Jack Daniels aren’t shooting it out for market share, because they aren’t proscribed. And yet, within the memory of people still living, alcohol WAS proscribed, and those who dealt in it DID shoot it out for market control. The country eventually had the good sense to ensure that Prohibition was brought to an end, which not-so-coincidentally ended most of the street violence associated with bootlegging.

    What you are pointing to is yet another example of the government creating the problem from whole cloth, then using the existence of the problem to justify grabbing yet more power and control.

  5. “Do you really want every Joe Schmo to take it upon himself to ensure justice?”

    Not to ensure justice; to protect his life, freedom, and property.

    Every complainant in a criminal case is someone who relied on the government to keep him safe.

    The government isn’t competent to keep us safe; it’s barely competent to retaliate against people who harm others.

    For dangers fictionalized or blown out of proportion, start with the WOD, the GWOT, and anything involving MADD.

  6. Oooh,
    WOD (Weapons of Destruction?) That’s a real danger.
    GWOT (Global War on Terror.) That’s a real danger.
    MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving.) Drunk drivers are a real danger.

    (Maybe we need to define “fictionalized dangers.” I think real dangers that are blown out of proportion are distinct from fictionalized dangers that are not dangers at all and are therefore always blown out of proportion.)

    Are WOD, GWOT, and MADD blown out of proportion? Statistically, maybe they’re blown out of proportion by the press. But I expect that if the government didn’t try to stop these dangers, we would have a lot more drunk drivers colliding with minivans holding a family of six and the terrorist plans we foiled would have occurred. Etc. Luckily, the government is fairly competent in holding these dangers at bay. Perfect? No. But pretty good.

    And when Joe Schmo is the complainant and seeks justice, who should he go to? The government. If the government is incompetent, let’s try to make the government better. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  7. I’ve told you how we can make the government better: fire 90% of it.

    You don’t like that medicine because of your romanticized views of the government’s competence. Those views have very little basis in reality. You believe the government is fairly competent at holding these dangers at bay because you want to, and not because of any evidence. In fact, the world is simply not as dangerous a place as the institutions who want your power would have you believe.

    WOD = War on Drugs: fictionalized danger (arguably self-actualizing fictional danger). Terrorism (also arguably self-actualizing) and DWI are dangers blown way out of proportion, so that we are insanely far beyond the point of diminishing returns for further sacrifices of our freedom.

    The complainant who has relied on the government to keep him safe, and lost the bet, is screwed. Nothing the government can do will restore him. Better that he learn to rely on himself from the beginning than that he count on an incompetent government to keep him safe, and then expect that government’s retributive justice to make him feel better.


  8. Time out. I’ve got to know one thing. You write, “I’ve told you how we can make the government better: fire 90% of it.” Do you really believe that, without qualification?

    Usually, disagreements are about a basic assumption that is never articulated. You are correct that my basic assumption is that our government is necessary for our safety and for the value of freedom. Though not perfect, our government is pretty darn good. I believe that. Show me good, hard, and clear evidence to the contrary, and I might rethink my assumptions. But I doubt that kind of evidence exists. Most people prefer to reject things wholesale rather than constructively consider how to make an institution better. It’s easy to demolish, but it’s hard to build. I believe that our society is important enough for us to try our hardest to build the best government we can.

    You seem to have the assumption that our government does more harm than good. You seem to have the assumption that the government is beyond help, and the only way to make it better is to fire 90% of the workforce. Logically, I am having trouble understanding your solution. If you really believe that our government is incompetent, you wouldn’t write that 10% better than 100%. If our government was truly incompetent, wouldn’t 0% be best?

    Of course not. Because we do need our government, and our government does a lot of good that is necessary to our basic liberties. The solution isn’t to cut it down, but to build it better.

    • Some government is arguably necessary, but this point is not obvious. What is obvious is that government is inevitable. We can’t cut government to 0% because this would leave a power vacuum, which the biggest bullies would fill with a de facto government or governments (see, e.g., Somalia).

      We have a difference in political philosophies. You think government should continue to grow unless it’s proven too big; I say cut government back until it’s proven too small. You say we should build it better; I say that it’s been fed on false (imaginary or overblown) fears and should be pruned back severely.

      Is government broken? Have you not been watching the news for the last decade? If tens of thousands of brain-injured veterans, impending financial collapse (to which the solution is less freedom for the people, in the form of more of their property handed to the corporations), and two million Americans in prison is not enough to start you thinking that maybe, just maybe our government is not “pretty darn good”, then I think you might be a lost cause. If you’re happy with the taxes you pay and where they go, then godspeed.

      Maybe 90% is extreme; I’ll concede that. So let’s try 10%. Heck, let’s just end prohibition and send a few prosecutors, judges, and cops out to find honest work. Give it a decade, and if it hasn’t worked we can recriminalize.

      One final point. We got out of the last Great Depression by burning a lot of fossil fuel, and we kept burning it for six decades. The economy is literally running out of fuel, and can no longer sustain that way of life. Government is going to shrink in our lifetimes; the question is whether it’s going to happen in a controlled way, or cataclysmically.

  9. Strange how when people give up their freedom for safety, they convert to a kind of fascism – whatever their political affiliation.

    Seems like an atavistic defense mechanism.

    And since they’ve given up their freedom, they can’t be bothered to think of anyone else’s. Hence the war on drugs, years in jail for possession of marijuana, DUI, and Texas’s 11 felonies involving oysters. (Texas has a lot of wonderful freedom-loving rugged individualists, but there’s a sublayer of real fascists, working mostly in law enforcement).

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