Liberty vs. Security

Sunday, May 25, 2008
First Aired: 
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

What Is It

Edward Gibbon and James Madison both noted how liberties in Rome were among the victims of its growing empire.  Is our society facing a similar problem, given what some public figures have said about choosing between how much liberty and how much security we want?  Or is this a false choice put forward by those in power?  John and Ken take a philosophical lens to the relationship between liberty and security.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by asking how we can maintain liberty but remain safe? Is there a balance between liberty and security? John thinks that giving up any amount of liberty for security goes against the founding fathers' ideas. Ken believes a balance between liberty and security can be struck, and liberty without security sounds more like anarchy. John asks what we mean by liberty: liberty to do what? Liberty from whom? He believes that if you give certain answers to these questions, there can be serious conflict between liberty and security. Ken points out that one of government's key roles is to protect the citizen from harm, but what happens if the means that guarantee this security infringes upon liberty? John and Ken go on to discuss the Bill of Rights and the liberties imagined by the founding fathers.

Ken introduces Stephen Holmes, the research director of the Center for Law and Security at the NYU Law School. John asks why liberty is one of the most absolute American values. Stephen discusses how liberty and security are intertwined and how impossible it can be to separate one concept from another, but ultimately thinks the choice is between different types of securities or liberties. Along this line of reasoning, Stephen Holmes points out that in many situations when liberty seems lost at the expense of security, security is actually lost as well. This suggests these practices only claim to be secure, but in reality undermine security. Ken and Stephen discuss conditions of extreme insecurity in which people are willing to give up much more liberty than usual--is the current terrorism situation in American one such situation?

Stephen Holmes discusses the different kinds of liberties and how some of them seem clearly against the public interest of security, while others could go either way. Does the New York Times deserve punishment for revealing the government's anti-terrorism plans? Stephen Holmes believes that the modern age of technology has radically changed peoples' reactions to infringements upon their privacy. Ken discusses what means are necessary for providing security, and wonders whether any real rules can be conceived about these methods or whether proposals will always be quite vague. Stephen Holmes discusses private ownership of a chlorine bank as an example of liberty being trumped by security. John returns the discussion to civil liberties and points out that defining the enemy or cause of security breaches is extremely important in maintaining civil liberties--if the enemy is nebulous and always changing, can anyone be targeted as an enemy? Ken argues with Stephen Holmes about the adoption of some general principle which might decide between instances of liberty and security conflict.

John, Ken, and Stephen discuss with callers how liberty and security are portrayed in American politics, how the government has succeeded and failed in anti-terrorism efforts, how much liberty they would give up, and how the American people seem blind to many of their actions in the rest of the world.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:14): Polly Stryker asks average people how much liberty they are willing to give up to guarantee security in the post-9/11 world of terrorism.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:17): Ian Shoales rapidly discusses the restriction of liberty in our current United States and what Isaiah Berlin might think of it all.