Friday, January 23, 2009

Three Aspects of Liberty: Choice

Freedom is predicated on the presence of alternatives in the economic, cultural, and political fields. Even in the absence of tyranny, freedom becomes meaningless where there is abject poverty, political inertness, and cultural sameness. -- Eric Hoffer
It is beyond argument that an increase in security coincides with a decrease in possibilities. Security, by definition, is a regulator of risk. Risk is reduced by eliminating potential paths of action, and with them, unknown and potentially hazardous future consequences.

In the computer industry, security is about locking down systems. A secure network is one where ports are closed or well-policed. Well-secured companies restrict their employees' computer activities. At a bank, it is not uncommon for employees to be denied access to instant messaging, to certain internet web sites, and to configuration and software settings. The approved activities are permitted and the forbidden activities are denied through the application of electronic policies enforced by a central governing Information Technology group. The result is that security is greatly enhanced. The risk of infestation by malware is reduced or eliminated. Sensitive data are safely stored where they cannot be accessed by prying eyes. Productivity is generally improved. It could be argued that security is good for business.

Security can benefit the individual as well. If a person decides to eliminate risky behaviors such as alcohol consumption, the abuse of food or drugs, sexual licentiousness, and so forth, he may well expect to likewise avoid the adverse consequences that such behaviors can cause. Security can be had in adopting a positive work ethic and assuming responsibility, in fulfilling duties and in practicing trustworthiness.

Security is the antithesis of freedom. A well-worn quote is attributed to Ben Franklin: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

If security is such a desirable quality, why must it be at odds with liberty?

In fact, liberty itself requires a certain type of security. Garrett Hardin understood the principle, which he called Hegelian in nature.1 But our founding fathers also understood it, and this is why they reluctantly allowed the Constitution to be amended with the Bill of Rights. It was to be understood that these Rights did not come from the Constitution itself, but were intrinsic human rights that needed to be secured by a limiting of risks presented by excessive government power. So, in order to be free, a type of limiting security must be practiced.

Sometimes security comes as a reaction to fear. We fear death, pain or suffering and we desire to avoid these possibilities.

Eric Hoffer wrote that "It is in the city that man's lusts and fears have free play, and dehumanization spreads like the plague... We savor power not when we move mountains and tell rivers whither to flow but when we can turn men into objects, robots, puppets, automata, or veritable animals."2 As city-dwelling automata, our choices are largely predetermined for us.

For example, building codes are a type of urban security. We will be safe from fire and poisonous gasses because we have installed arc-faulting circuit breakers and special chemical and particle detection alarms. Specific artificial materials must be used with certain ratings and in particular quantities and configurations. This results in safer communities and sturdier buildings that can better withstand disasters.

Earlier this month, a group of Old-order Amish families entered into a lawsuit against their Upstate New York town. The town had refused to grant these families permission to build their own homes without first obtaining specific permits. 3

The Amish said that they would be willing to pay for the permits (since permits also serve as a source of revenue to the city), but were unwilling to conform to some building codes that required engineered materials or electrical wiring. Some of the construction requirements were not compatible with the unique beliefs of the Amish people.

These building codes don't just make us safer and more secure, they also intrude into the separate lives of a religious people who can no longer practice their religion without breaking the law. Liberty and freedom suffered.

Does it make sense to require building codes in dense urban residential zones? Eminently so. Does it make sense to enforce these same codes on self-sufficient rural Amish communities? This is tyranny.

Sometimes security comes as a result of political or professional jealousy, or from the fear of losing a lifestyle or material wealth.

On February 18, a committee will convene in Salt Lake City to hear the case of a group of professional medical practitioners who desire to outlaw the natural birthing process.

Although humans have successfully given birth to children for perhaps millions of years without any medical bureaucracy, this group will require every baby to be born in a room that is sterile only in its ambiance, and in the presence of professionally trained medical staff.

Upon entering the world, the first experience our children encounter will be that of steely needles and burning synthetics coursing through their veins. All of this will be for the sake of security; that no woman or child should suffer or die from a natural birth.

It all has the flavor of professional disdain for natural and alternative health options. Perhaps these professionals are losing too much business to those despicable and pretentious upstarts who know nothing of the One True Path of modern medical practice.

These builders of Utopia will take away our pain and wipe away our tears; and so they will make us empty. We will have no landmarks in our lives against which we may measure any joy, which must fade into a gray contentment and the dull yearning of the soul.

Is it possible there are hills that nature or God demands we climb alone or become forever the less for having been carried over them?

The plans of true believers for our lives may well be better than our own when judged against some abstract official standard, but to deny people their personal struggles is to render existence absurd.4

Liberty comes from within, and so must security. Security is the result of virtue practiced, not of entitlements enforced. We would do well to adhere to the principles of liberty envisioned by our Founding Fathers, in applying the tenets of security wisely and sparingly. Unfortunately, security has become the pursuit of our nation.

1. "It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously oppose; cries of 'rights' and 'freedom' fill the air. But what does 'freedom' mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, 'Freedom is the recognition of necessity.'" From "Recognition of Necessity" in The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin, 1968.

2. The Temper of Our Time, Eric Hoffer, p38

3. AP article, 1/6/2009 1:10:51 PM MST, Amish sue over upstate N.Y. town's building rules

4. The Irony of the Safety Lamp; The Lure of Utopia, from The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto


Unknown said...

A lot of what I view as issues with draconian security come about less as a desire for actual security as much as a desire for well-defined liability. Building codes seem to have more to do with insurance than with safety.

If something goes wrong, we have to know who to blame (other than the always-popular deity). Who's going to pay for all that?

Sometimes it seems to me that people are becoming less and less capable of caring for themselves and assuming adult responsibilities. Our vanity is more important than our autonomy.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the more complex and controlling a system becomes, the more massive the repercussions and probability of chaos. There's no such thing as absolute safety.

Peter McCombs said...


Thanks for the insight. That's a really good point about liability.

I guess liability is a type of insecurity, so avoiding liability can be considered a pursuit of security. We feel more secure if we can't be blamed for something.

Reducing liability is the same as reducing responsibility. So a people that is not liable is a people that has limited responsibility.

Without responsibility, choices are either made neutral (artificial selection of preferred consequences, like not getting pregnant), made trivial (you can choose the color and features of your car, but you still must have insurance and must buy a standardized vehicle), or are eliminated altogether (you can't deliver that baby or teach that child or twist that pipe because you aren't licensed).

Liability can be used subversively. We might believe at first that a standard is introduced for our safety, but pragmatically, it is more useful in the courts when determining (as you say) who is going to pay for all that (or get paid for that!).

So liability also ties in to the jealousy status-quo. If I can show that an unlicensed person is to blame for something bad that happened, and if I can prohibit that entire class of people from acting again, then I can bolster my own business if I happen to be licensed for that particular thing. It's a form of monopolization driven by greed. Greed is a type of insecurity too.

The net result of the pursuit of security, as a national pass-time, is mass infantilization.

However, I do advocate the pursuit of individual security and family or community security. We ought to look with very skeptical eyes on anyone who uses the terms "National Security" or "Social Security."

The fact that the Amish people live interchangeable lives within their group, for instance, is far more tolerable than the interchangeable lives of the entire American middle class.

In a sense, the return to sanity is a return, not to chaos, but to to something organic in nature. It's not anarchy or lawlessness, just a lack of the intellectualism that is enforced as a Utopian vision.

America is about groups of people who maybe disagree with each other, living their own lives. That arrangement in itself becomes their common cause.

"I am convinced that the unfolding of human capacities requires a social unit in which people of different interests, skills, and tastes know each other, commune daily with each other, emulate, antagonize, and spur each other. The absolute freedom of movement from one system to the other and from one district to the other will result in a continued sorting out of people, so that eventually each system and each district will be operated by its most ardent adherents."

That's more Eric Hoffer. :) If you stick around long enough, I'll probably eventually quote all of his books...