Thursday 21 January 2010

You can’t buy freedom

A reflection on Benjamin Franklin's counterposition of freedom and security
‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’

Benjamin Franklin wrote the above at a time when the American colonies were struggling to establish themselves as democratic communities free from the arbitrary power of the British Crown. He was warning against the temptation to bargain away some degree of autonomy in order to secure peaceful terms with the king. Crucially, it was a warning against political naivety as much as lack of principle: the belief that safety can be bought at the expense of liberty is a false one. Not only do those who try to make such a transaction deserve neither liberty nor safety; in the long run they get neither. This is because to be unfree is to be insecure, since one is not in control of one’s own destiny.

Franklin’s words are regularly quoted as a warning against giving up civil liberties for the sake of security in the context of the ‘war on terror’. And it is true that if we compromise our freedoms in response to terrorism, we not only sacrifice the very thing we claim to be protecting, but we render ourselves less secure in the longer term. If anyone can be arrested and detained without charge, for example, how can we feel safe either as individuals or as a democracy? We can reassure ourselves with the cliché that ‘if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear’, but liberties that depend on the discretion and good graces of the state are not liberties at all.

While the erosion of civil liberties in recent years is a serious problem, we do not live in a police state, and despite the fears of some commentators, nor is a police state imminent. There is a deeper problem with the counterposition of liberty to security, however, that is at once more abstract and more urgent: we do live in a state in which freedom is undervalued and misunderstood. Now as in Franklin’s time, naivety and thoughtlessness are at least as dangerous as simple cowardice and opportunism.

Franklin employs a commercial metaphor: liberty as something to be traded for safety, or, by implication, any other desirable abstract noun. It captures well the naivety with which liberty is often discussed, the failure to understand what freedom really means. Freedom cannot be traded, and nor can it be taken to the bank to be safeguarded while we get on with our lives: securing rights in law, while crucial, counts for little if we do not believe in freedom. Freedom is a way of life.

To illustrate this, consider another variant of the fetishised understanding of liberty. Politicians often tell us that ‘with rights come responsibilities’, as if these are two distinct sorts of thing, one tethered to the other. In fact, rights are responsibilities, our own, not to be qualified by the authorities. Put simply: to the extent that we act freely, we are responsible for our actions. We don’t need politicians to saddle us with additional responsibilities. Unfortunately the prevailing idea today seems to be that we are granted the right to free speech, for example, provided we agree to exercise it ‘responsibly’ by avoiding causing offence. That is no freedom at all.

If we really have free speech, then we, and not the state or anyone else, are genuinely responsible for what we say. We can choose to cause offence, and live with the real consequences rather than artificial ones imposed by the state. Speaking freely might upset cosy consensus and change the way others think; it might make us unpopular, or indeed cause people to lose respect for us or distrust us in future. It is up to us to make that calculation and behave accordingly. It is not up to the state to impose constraints on speech for the sake of security, social cohesion, or anything else: that is the opposite of responsibility.

Again, such constraints are not only an affront to liberty, but counterproductive in their own terms. In the absence of free speech, consensus is artificial; mutual respect a charade. Politically correct speech codes don’t resolve conflict or foster conviviality: they suppress differences of opinion and engender resentment. Worst of all they rob us of the real responsibility we have as free actors in society, burdening us instead with artificial constraints.

The erosion of civil liberties as a response to terrorism is only the most obvious example of how society tries to buy safety at the expense of freedom. In recent years, amid confusion about the meaning and value of freedom, many more mundane constraints have begun to stifle everyday life in Britain. The streets are surveilled by cctv and often uniformed wardens in addition to the police, while measures to contain ‘antisocial behaviour’ effectively criminalise targeted individuals in unprecedented ways. Bans on smoking and drinking in public places take responsibility away from all of us in the name of safety and etiquette. But such measures not only curtail individual freedom; the safety they buy is of a dubious sort. Proliferating safety signs in public places, as well as notices prohibiting this, that and the other, symbolise a diminishment of personal responsibility and an increasing deference to anonymous authorities. We are not so much safer as simply more supervised.

Perhaps the most pernicious example of such constraints is the vetting of all adults who routinely come into contact with children. Not only teachers, but volunteers working with children, and even parents looking after their children’s friends in many circumstances, are required to have Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks and to be registered on a national database. In the name of safety and child protection, millions of adults are treated as potential child abusers. Worst of all, we are encouraged to internalise this ‘safety first’ attitude, and to value an official stamp of respectability over the genuine trust and mutual respect that develops informally between friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Absolute security is of course impossible. But we are surely safer when we take responsibility for ourselves and one another than when we defer to abstract authorities. And true responsibility requires liberty, the freedom to make our own judgements and to act on them. Without such autonomy, we are at the mercy of whomever has power over us, dependent on their beneficence.

For the same reason, the only reliable foundation for liberty is not the state – the seat of power, however liberal – but society itself, those very friends, colleagues and neighbours in whom we put our trust. A general and mutual recognition of the value of liberty is the best guarantee that individual rights will be respected, and the only true basis for the rule of law. Freedom constituted in this way cannot be traded away or compromised, precisely because it is not a set of principles maintained by those in power, but instead a way of life.

Franklin’s warning remains relevant not only because the questionable dictates of national security threaten to undermine individual rights, but also because mundane safety concerns and a culture of risk aversion sap the spirit of freedom from everyday life. Freedom as a way of life means more than defending liberty; it means practising it. Liberty itself is a duty as well as a right, and it requires both wisdom and courage. Any attempt to compromise freedom in the name of safety represents a failure of both: a failure to understand the meaning of freedom, and a failure to accept responsibility for it. We are capable of better, of managing our own lives and our dealings with others without deferring to the authorities in the name of health and safety. Essential liberty, with all the risk it entails, is the stuff of life.

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