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Security and Liberty

A brief foray into political philosophy.

by James Leroy Wilson
July 18, 2001

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Security and Liberty_James Leroy Wilson-A brief foray into political philosophy. Having voted Libertarian in the late election, I have had to defend myself against the charge that I'm an idealist. It's ironic, in a way: I vote for the only party that stands for Constitutional government, and I'm the fool. It is, of course, prudent and right to place your faith in unconstitutional government.

But the point must be addressed: my views are not in the mainstream. But what are they, really? An explanation is in order, if for no other reason than to suggest that not all Libertarians want to abolish the stop sign. The following, then, briefly explains the basis of my political philosophy.

If someone asked for a synonym for "security," many would probably suggest "safety" or "protection." I would suggest another word: liberty.

For security is, fundamentally, the right to exist. But it is not the right to be free from all danger, which safety is, and it is not total dependence on the powers that keep you safe, which is what being protected means. Security is, instead, the right to exist in law.

For an object to be secure, the incentives to leave it alone, the deterrent, must be greater than the incentives to damage, destroy or steal it - even if, and especially when, the "object" in question is a person. The instrument for producing such a deterrent is law and the government which enforces it.

Security, then, is the enjoyment of protection, through law and force, from the invasions of other persons. Security is not total protection from forces of nature, human accident, or even all violations of law (because not everyone will be sufficiently deterred). Security is, however, the reasonable expectation that when I leave my home, it will be untouched from invasion, and that I will not suffer any violation on my person no matter where I am. There may be criminals out there, and we may and (in most places) certainly should provide greater precautions than mere law, but life would not be governed out of fear.

Security is the underlying principle of social organization; it is the the first and last purpose of the state. But for government to exist with any degree of efficiency and self-sufficiency, it requires a stable community. So the government is in charge, not only of laws that provide personal security, but of the military and economic infrastructures that provide collective or national security, as well as regulations that help protect the public from natural disasters and accidents. The individual depends on the public to secure himself and his belongings, and that the individual, in turn, serves the public through participation and obedience to ensure the state's own stability and security.

But such laws, which are intended for "public safety,"do not imply that the government guarantees personal safety, let alone health or happiness. The government guarantees the "right" to exist, not existence. If, through accident, foolishness, error, or natural catastrophe, someone loses his life or property, it is not the government's obligation to reverse the misfortune. That is not what government is about. When all is said and done, the government doesn't care about any individual in particular; it knows its legitmacy is not endangered by "one child left behind." An efficiently operating government would sooner leave people alone most of the time.

For safety, complete protection, is the elimination of all risk. We may wish that government eliminated all risk, that it protects us totally. But what is the cost?

The cost is liberty. For what is liberty if not security, the freedom to move about because the individual and the individual's possessions are protected by law and force? A government powerful enough to regulate everything for our own safety, our "own good," or for what it thinks is "fair," is a government that we are defenseless against. It's a government that will protect us from everything - except itself. It's like a mother in the animal kingdom that can and will eats its young. Government is not created to devour us, or to direct us from some noble purpose that philosophers and theologians devise. The question of security is never one for idealists, for the idea itself depends on actual conditions in human society, not on how that society "ought" to be. Using my vote to mandate the government's forcing of others to live as I want them to live, or how I think Jesus wants them to live, defeats the purpose of government. If the government tries for anything more than providing security and guaranteeing liberty, it will sacrifice both.

Idealists do not approach government thinking about security at all; they would rather focus on what is "just" or "virtuous." They would demilitarize because war is immoral, and thus sacrifice collective security. Yet they would also use the instruments of government to limit personal liberty, fearing the consequences of personal freedom. But without collective and individual security, without liberty, there is no justice and no virtue. Trying to move society to an ideal, utopian, perfect place is impossible precisely because we are imperfect and no human institution can perfect us. I don't vote Libertarian because I'm an idealist; I vote Libertarian in order to stop the idealists.

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Rural Wisconsinite from Chetek, Wisconsin writes:
July 19, 2001
I am not averse to libertarian principles at all. I agree with most of what James Leroy Wilson says, but I apply it differently because I am unclear on the following.

1) On what principle of natural or revealed law does individual property take precedence over the God's gift of the natural world--land, water, air--to all living things? The same question may be asked of the pre-emptive powers that states take for themselves without the consent of the governed.

2) For certain tasks, both resources, and the legal authority to discipline their use, are required. Since, by the consent of the governed we have ceded to the government the power to claim our property, our time, and even our lives in extreme circumstances, who else but the government has the resources and the power to care for the helpless among us?

3) In a libertarian government as now defined, what would happen to the Center for Disease Control? Medicare? Social Security? Minimum wage? Environmental protection? Where is it written that the security of the nation is maintained only against hostile nations and criminals, but not against the ravages of disease, poverty, and economic exploitation of the citizenry and unrenewable resources? If there is a line between do this, not that what makes the distinction more than a matter of opinion and affordability?

4) Once we have decided to do certain things and not others, on what grounds are these decisions made? Do we care for asthma in children, but not rotten teeth? Since every government makes such decisions for purposes of national security, where is the distinction between libertarians and socialists merely a matter of degree?

5) Who is expendable to a libertarian government? Is the philosophy, in the words of a Victorian satirist, Thou shalt not kill, but need not strive/Officiously to keep alive? Was he essentially correct?

6) Do libertarians reject the idea of commonwealth in its obvious original meaning?

Show me how to exercise the biblical mandate of caring for the poor of the land without the resources and power (both are required) of government as society and economy are now constituted,

and Libertarianism might have some legitimacy.

[The author will respond in his column on Wednesday, July 25, 2001.]

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