Centuries ago, an English jurist opined that it was better that a few good men be killed on the highways each year, than the rest of us should live in tyranny. Ever has it been thus: increased security, which one acquires by increasing the power of government, comes necessarily at the expense of liberty. It might be possible to eliminate nearly all crime – but to do so, one would have to eradicate almost all liberty.
Just as your plumber and electrician would gladly, for a price, improve your plumbing and lighting, so too would your police force make you safer – and safer – and safer still. When the Obama administration insists that they require certain provisions of the Patriot Act to make Americans safer, we have good reason to believe them. But no matter the intentions of these well-meaning professionals, our objective isnt to maximize our plumbing, lighting or security without respect to cost. Beyond a certain point, a society will prefer a certain amount of crime – rather than having a police camera at every intersection and in every living room, and-or the power to monitor all electronic communications.
While the natural evolution of government is, inexorably, to grow ever larger, the US now has a rare opportunity to go against the natural order of things, and to shrink the size of its security apparatus. At a minimum, the expiry of significant portions of the Patriot Act should be taken as an occasion to reevaluate the nation’s security priorities, particularly on how they impact privacy and the power and intrusiveness of government.
Of course one must avoid the conceptual error of the bureaucrats whose deregulation of the financial services sector unwittingly paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis. One does not want to be the man who throws away his umbrella because he hasnt felt a raindrop in ages – failing to realize that the umbrella had been keeping him dry all along. Americans have enjoyed relative quiet since the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, without experiencing domestic terrorism of that magnitude. By reducing the power of the police, we necessarily make terrorism, large scale and small, that much more likely.
Walt Whitman wrote that great poets needs great audiences. Analogously, great leaders need a great electorate. And it is unfortunate that no one in Congress trusts American voters enough to accurately frame the debate over extending the expiring portions of the Patriot Act. It is indeed a matter of sacrificing liberty for security, or vice-versa. The problem in part is one of trust – that the electorate is not expected to react reasonably to an act of terrorism – or three or six – much less accept it as a fair price to pay for increased liberty. Politicians like Rand Paul should stop equivocating, and make that case, because that indeed is the tradeoff we as a society must inevitably make.
Not everyone will agree on the same balance to be struck between liberty and security, but it is the sort of issue that a democracy is ideally suited to hash out. We look forward to that debate, should our elected officials muster the courage for it.
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Editor’s note: the Field Guide is off for an early-summer vacay. We’ll be back with new material in mid-June.