Freedom vs. Safety

 Posted on December 16, 2008 in Uncategorized

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:

  1. Pre-encounter ("vigilance", information-gathering, yellow);

  2. Post-encounter ("fear", decision-making, orange); and

  3. 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 toindividual safety, and most societies have been for most of the lastfive 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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