Monday, October 26, 2015

The Liberty State

In The Atlantic yesterday, David Frum turned comments from an Oxford Union discussion on liberty and security into a column, which I read. The basic jist of things is that compared to other factors that work to suppress free speech and expression in the United Kingdom (and, presumably, the United States) counter-terrorism powers are very low on the list.

It's interesting that Mr. Frum quotes Lincoln's “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts—while I must not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert?” in the defense of the security state, and then goes on to reference Roosevelt's four freedoms: freedom from fear, of speech, of worship and from want as the reasons why said security state should exist. After all, the "wily agitator" was exercising his freedom of speech. Lincoln's casting of the soldier boy as "simple-minded" was designed to shift a measure of culpability from the actor to a speaker. But the very concept of Freedom of Speech is that speech is neither control nor force - the choice to act as one will, which is not a guaranteed freedom, is always with the actor. Wily agitators, like terrorist recruiters, may frighten us, but when we then criminalize particular speech out of fear, we create as many problems as we solve.

Mr. Frum's argument comes down to this: When the government acts to curtail Terrorism, it is addressing a genuine source of fear. And since an essential component of functional liberty is to be free from fear, there is no trade-off between counter-terrorism and liberty.

But what about other fears? Whether you agree with them or not, many Americans find the threat posed by gun violence in the United States a legitimate worry. And, to be sure, there is no measure by which even the most dedicated radical terrorists on the planet do in anywhere near as many Americans as are shot every year by their countrymen, even after decades of decline in the overall homicide rate (and even the absolute numbers). Does this then mean that there is no trade-off between expansive government anti-firearms programs and liberty? (Many of Mr. Frum's fellow conservatives would certainly say that there is...) In areas where street crime is endemic, does the freedom from fear trump the right to Keep and Bear Arms? If not, why not? Why is the fear of street crime or mass shootings any less appropriate for government to act on than the fear of terrorism?

And when Mr. Frum references "mobs seeking to impose their definition of social justice by force," he conveniently ignores that these are people who are acting on a fear of injustices that "the dedicated police and intelligence professionals" and the government that employs them, have decided are not worth acting on. And in situations like this, when you have two groups linked by their mutual fears of each other, which group is entitles to freedom from their fear? Cue the "terror poker" games, as each side seeks to cast itself as the one more terrorized by the actions of the other, to justify seeking the intervention of the apparatus of the state. And as definitions and understandings of "justice" are neither indisputable, universal nor eternal, why should be there an assumption that governments and law enforcement are acting on ideas of justice shared across society? Or that, in the absence of shared ideas, that government should be given a free hand to choose which ideas to enforce?

Using a right to be free from fear as one basis for liberty, and expecting governments to act on that, introduces a level of subjectivity that one can argue that governments don't do very well with. But it also introduces a definition of liberty that involves freedom from any interference, not just that imposed by governments. Mr. Frum views the strident tone and threatening gestures of modern social justice movements as threats to liberty, but it doesn't take much to rouse Americans more broadly to death threats against people they find reprehensible for one reason or another - while I find complaints about the portrayals of women in video games to be trivial, for some people that rises to the level of a capital crime. And again, why should an often-abused right of anonymity on the internet be ignored if other fears call for expansive government powers and intrusive surveillance? And where does this leave more informal levers of social control? Are boycotts then threats to liberty?

Mr. Frum's point that a well-functioning security apparatus tends to seem pointless is well-taken. But in asking us to place blind trust in the people that operate it, he presumes that they are incapable of using the control that they must necessarily be given for their own ends. And if Mr. Frum sees disagreements between different factions of the citizenry as impinging on liberty, it seems odd to presume that the simple act of becoming a police or intelligence professional makes one immune to the misuse of that control.

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