Friedman, Freedom, and Temporary Safety

Thomas Friedman is a boob.

I worry about [another 9/11] even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.

Privacy is freedom. I’m not sure whether this is self-evident, so I may flesh it out later. Until then: What is it that Big Brother is doing?

Friedman’s logic is this: we have to give up some freedom now so that we remain safe.

Ben Franklin had something to say about that.

Friedman knows that his position is contrary to the principles on which this nation were founded. So he protests that he “reluctantly, very reluctantly” gives up essential freedom, and rationalizes the surrender: We must remain safe not for safety’s own sake, but because otherwise we hand the state an excuse to take away more of our freedom. Friedman is willing to give up freedom to fight the last war—to prevent the next 9/11—not because he’s a simpering statist but because he cares so deeply about our freedom.

But here’s the thing: the last 9/11 handed the state every excuse it needed to take away as much of our freedom as it could justify with a straight face. How much freedom? All of it. When the executive claims the authority to kill anyone anywhere, any freedom we seem to have is merely symbolic.

Friedman says, “Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11.” There seems to be some difference in his brain between that statement and “Do whatever you need to do, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again”:

That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.

Friedman thinks he can draw the line here and preserve some freedom. He is willing to allow the state to track him and his children and know who they are talking to, how often, and for how long because he sees that as the price of not having the state listen in on the calls. But I wouldn’t draw the line where he does, neither does the government. It’s not what I would call a principled distinction. Neither “content is more essential, and as far as we know they’re not already hoovering up content” nor “we can trust secret courts” is a compelling argument.

Maybe Friedman is right: maybe 99 percent of Americans would, after another 9/11, be willing to give up freedom to be made safe. Math is hard, and Americans have a cavalier attitude toward their freedoms; they’re willing to give them up on less provocation.

So what’s the solution for those of us who are not willing to sell liberty cheaply?

We could take the Friedman approach and say “this far but, golly gee, no farther please” in the assumption that by giving up some freedom we can preserve the rest. But this approach is doomed to failure because even if we succeed in fighting the last war, something else will come along that justifies, in the minds of the booboisie, less freedom. Meanwhile, the Friedman approach trains the 99% to give up essential freedom for temporary safety, teaches the government that we will not push back, and so hastens liberty’s eventual demise.

Or we could say “this will not stand” and teach the booboisie to push back. We might never get more than 50% on the side of liberty in the face of fear, but we do not need a majority to prevail.

16 responses to “Friedman, Freedom, and Temporary Safety”

  1. He’s right, you know: another 9/11 would destroy every last shred of freedom. But that doesn’t mean that’s what we should do. I intend to fight back – albeit without automatic assault weapons – by telling everyone I know, over and over again, what a horrible trade-off it is to give up liberty for temporary security.

  2. Mark:

    I don’t agree about your perception of Friedman’s statement. I believe Friedman is expressing his concern that Congress will legislate away our Bill of Rights in the name of security. I don’t believe that he says that this is a good thing. As a fellow Attorney and member of the Bar, I agree with you that this prospect is a frightening thing. We should NEVER SURRENDER our BILL OF RIGHTS.One of our Founding Fathers said:”He who gives up liberty in exchange for security deserves neither liberty nor security.” I strongly believe that.

    • What part of it don’t you agree with, and why? I don’t see another way of reading Friedman’s words than “we ought to give up some freedom (privacy) now in hopes of not giving up more later.”

      I presume that readers will have a baseline level of cultural literacy. When I write, “Ben Franklin had some­thing to say about [giving up freedom to remain safe],” I expect my readers to recognize the reference. Is this unfair?

  3. The problem really is that we have all these laws that we’re supposed to follow. But the government and its agencies basically say: Fuck That Shit.

    And what are we left to do about it, other than pitchforks and torches? Because MERIKUH MUST DEFEAT TERRISUM.

  4. This problem is posed so often I think it should get a name. The majority of a country cares more about safety than security, the constitution says you can’t do that, and the government, duly elected, goes with the meal ticket solution- toss the constitution.

    Not that every state thinks the same way on the issue. I’m starting to think perhaps the answer is to let say, New York, California, and Massachusetts opt out of the Bill of Rights. Their people don’t see much point in them. If the Bill of Rights goes down, the trouble is that perfectly good places like Idaho and New Hampshire are dragged down the drain with idiots from Minnesota. I’m just saying, maybe we need to federalize our protections from our federal government.

    • Your comment seems to suggest that you think the federal government is a greater threat to the Bill of Rights than are state governments. I’m sure this is not so.

      • Oh no, not at all. I simply mean that the in terms of the security v. safety issue, there are states where the majority goes safety, and that nationwide, that’s probably also true. The Constitution of course is not meant to bend with the whims of the majority. But the reality is when the majority gets scared, the constitution is simply ignored. My idea would be that the states be allowed to waive their protections guaranteed by the federal constitution (on the basis of popular vote, of course).

        The obvious drawback is that once they all give in, there’s relatively little to stop the governments in the remaining states from violating their rights, and the shift toward totalitarianism is ok simply gets cemented in our culture.

        It’s difficult to believe that this country is going to remain free. That’s why the realist buys himself a survival kit for his car and picks a spot in Alaska to head to when things go to hell.

  5. Our government just lives in a complete state of fear, so they demand some of our freedom for what they call “security.” Think back to 9/11. Those who attacked us that day did much more than kill innocent people. They have disrupted our government for over a decade now and our freedom.

  6. You can generally count on Friedman to be reliably wrong on everything. I have just completely ignored his “flat” world for some time.

    • I have approved this comment under my new policy of allowing blatant comment spam, since (as it turns out) it hurts the law firm (Here, “Smith Patten”) that is abusing my hospitality.

      The masochist says “beat me!” and the sadist says “noooo.”

      The price for removal of a spam comment, Spencer Smith, is negotiable.

    • I have approved this blatant spam comment for two reasons. First, because I believe that spam comments do more harm than good to the search-engine rating of companies that use them; and second, because I look forward to seeing what attentive readers (ahem… Scott? Ken? Brian? Jordan?) might make of the ridiculous “” website.

  7. @Joe Carson–Our gov­ern­ment just lives in a com­plete state of fear…

    Actually, they design and demand that we live in a complete state of fear. Fear reduces people to stimulus-response loop thinking; like animals in a Skinner box.

    Rational humans insert thought into the loop–and governments don’t want thinking subjects.

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