“Important Considerations for Balancing Security and Freedom”


Major Matt Hallgarth



This paper addresses one of the issues proposed by the 2002 JSCOPE conference announcement, and is, I think, perhaps the crucial domestic policy consideration for leaders in the war on terrorism.  How should leaders balance the need for more security with the rights of privacy and freedom of movement?   

The first point I would make about this question is that this is a complicated issue and ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ are vague terms.  Security considerations are diverse, including such things as economic security, political security, personnel security, and national security.  These different security considerations can clearly conflict, affecting, for example, the way whole governments are established.  The generally capitalist systems of the west and the communist systems of the east differed fundamentally over the issue of whether governments should prioritize economic security over political security or vice versa.  All governments are interested naturally in national security.  The war on terrorism seems framed in terms of national security, although it seems that the other forms of security I mentioned are instrumental to national security generally. 

Secondly, I point out that, generally, the concept ‘freedom’ can concern two very different things: “freedom from” and “freedom to”.  It is one thing to be free from being acted upon in a certain way, and it is quite another to be free to act the way you want. 

I will make the following points in the next few minutes. 

1.                           Conceptually, security and privacy are a type of ‘freedom from’.  What we normally call ‘‘freedom’ in normal talk is freedom to act as one chooses.  Freedom from (security) and freedom to (of action) are related in a dynamic way.

2.                           From a policy standpoint, freedom to (act) ought to have priority over freedom from.  Taking away people’s freedom to in order to provide them with freedom from is something that must be justified.  On the other hand, people do not have to defend keeping their freedom unless they have done something that merits having that freedom restricted. 

3.                           Moral disagreement is ubiquitous and permanent in many areas of life.  This includes decisions about how much freedom to act may be sacrificed to provide security.  Two sets of parents can be good and well intentioned yet take very different views on how to balance security with freedom in their children’s lives.  These differences do not necessarily reveal that one set of parents is guilty of erroneous moral reasoning.  People personally rank the harms and benefits of freedom from and freedom to differently.  This difference in ranking is not an issue that moral theory can solve. 

4.                           The issue of gun control is analog to the problem of assessing considerations of providing freedom from by taking away freedom to.  It is possible the some security can be gained without taking away freedom.  These alternatives are strongly justified.  These points are listed in a bit more detail below.

To be secure is to be free from some harm, or most likely, free from an increased probability of some harm.  To be free in the sense in which this question “How should authorities balance the need for security with rights of privacy and freedom of movement?” is phrased refers to having freedom of action.  Or one can call the first passive freedom and the second one active freedom.  To me, the right to privacy becomes absorbed into the broader concept of ‘freedom from’ since privacy is freedom from a specific sort of personal invasion. 

Every rational person wants to be free from harm and they want to be free to do what they want.  They want to be free from death, sickness, pain, etc….  All impartial rational persons also want to be free, i.e., free to plan and order there lives the way they want.  It seems intuitively obvious that a core function of any government is to provide for the security, i.e., freedom from external and internal threats in order to provide citizens with freedom to conduct their lives as they want, given certain restrictions. 

Our government has a core constitutional responsibility to protect its citizens from internal and external threats, threats that impede freedom to create and implement their own plans of life, to engage in commerce, to be safe on the roads and in the stores, and to express themselves in the public arena.  While the government’s responsibility is clear with respect to stopping an invader, catching terrorists in the planning phase and providing police to keep violent criminals off the streets, their job is more complicated when it comes to setting and enforcing limits on “freedom of action” in order to keep some peoples freedom to act from substantially increasing the probability that harm will be caused to other people in the community.  These people want freedom of action too.  Freedom to act does not, from a moral standpoint, include freedom to cause or substantially increase the risk of causing harm to other people unless an adequate reason is provided.  The freedom that is sacrosanct is freedom that is tempered by moral limitations that would create a secure environment for people to exercise a maximum amount of freedom commensurate with maximum security for others.  

An argument that limits the government’s right to take away “freedom to” in order to provide “freedom from” is provided by the way both types of freedom seem to naturally interact.  That relationship is roughly described as follows.  A lack of security retards freedom of action and prompts a desire for more security to regain freedom of action. However, too much security impedes freedom of action and creates a desire for less security.  In other words, freedom to act is maximized when security is high enough but not too high.  Freedom of action is minimized when there is both too much security and not enough of it.  Everyone rational person wants their “freedom to” act maximized.  Maximized freedom requires some guarantees of security.  These two are in a chaotic relationship as the current terrorism focus illustrates.  The current interest in balancing security and freedom is a response to the loss of homeostasis caused by current events.  My father would rather endure great risk to preserve his civil liberties.  Other people would live in a quasi police state to feel safer.  Most of us are somewhere in between. 

When the government makes decisions involving security, the goal of providing that security should be to maximize total freedom to act.  The goal of providing security is to protect people from being preyed upon by others who want to cause them harm.  People need to be freed from certain harms in order to increase their freedom to carry out their life plans commensurate with their ability and motivation, with minimum interference.  If the government decides that some security measure is a prudent policy during this war on terrorism, then the burden of proof to justify those changes belongs with the government.  The government has to show that heightened security measures will restore a maximization of freedom to act that was somehow lost when terrorist attacks, and the threat of more terrorists attacks, caused enough fear in the public that they felt less freedom to act.  The goal of government security policy should be to optimize the balance of freedom from and freedom to, to use security only so far as it produces the most freedom possible with the least interference.  They have the burden of proof.  Since most of us are not in a position to know what terrorist attacks are averted from heightened security measures, it is not easy for us to verify if restriction on freedom to act are effective.  Some word from the government showing some successes would help to justify heightened security measures.  We do not seem to be getting that information right now, but are being asked to trust the authorities.   

There is another reason why the government has the burden of proof.  Governments are not different from individuals in a key respect.  When governments act to prevent harm but cause harm in the process, then they owe the citizenry a reason.  Acts of preventing normally have to be justified when those acts cause harm.  A doctor who wants to cut off your arm as a treatment has to give you a reason why he is going to harm you in this way.  If it is to cure a tennis elbow, the reason is poor.  If it is to stop an aggressive melanoma, it may be reasonable.  Some of these reasons are already conventional.  A child who scraps a knee will have the wound cleansed by her parent.  This will hurt, and there is a good reason for it.  Drill instructors cause a lot of temporary harm in the form of physical and psychological pain in order to prevent graver harms when the battle is afoot.  If the government wants cause harm by taking away something precious like personal freedom such as put disruptive checkpoints on all the highways, then the government owes the society a reason that at least some significant group of rational people are willing to accept as a policy.  One of the problems with current security measures at airports, like the practice of confiscating nail clippers and other seemingly insignificant metallic items is that the government has not shown that causing the harm of taking these personal items prevents enough harm to justify the practice.  When harm is caused to prevent some other harm, the harm causers have to justify their harm preventing.     

Enacting policies that attempt to balance freedom and security, i.e, taking away freedom to in order to provide freedom from, will cause disagreements, some of which are not resolvable using moral theoretical tools.  Most disagreements usually concern disputes over facts.  You might see a terrorist on every street corner where I see none.  You might think airport X-ray machines work better than I do at finding bombs.  But even if there is agreement over the facts of a specific case, there can be disagreement over other issues such as the ranking of various harms and benefits.  Even if you and I agree as to the terrorist threat in the nation right now, we can disagree about what actions should be done.  We can value security and freedom differently.  You may be willing to tolerate the increased probability of occasional terrorist attacks in order to live in a country that respects a high level of personal freedom.  I might prefer bringing terrorist attack probabilities closer to zero and be willing to surrender a lot of personal freedom to get it.  Moral theory cannot solve these disagreements.  These preferences would show up in polls; rational people would accept different measures based on these priorities. 

A reason to be cautious with the government taking away freedom to act in order to provide security is that it is usually difficult to undo government policies when they are instigated. The presumption is that ‘freedom to’ is sacrosanct and should be defended vigorously against promulgating fear that encourages excessive measures to provide security.  When people accept risks and put their freedom to act ahead of their desire for security, then those who want to take freedom to provide security are encouraged to vigorously argue for new security measures.  I preach on this point.  Defend freedom first and the security providers will feel more pressure to provide sound arguments for taking freedom away.  The ubiquitous nature of disagreement indicates that these decisions are casuistic and not deductive; they will continue to generate ongoing debate.  Better to have freedom to with acceptable risk than a higher level of freedom from with marginally lower risk.  The pay off has to be significant.  No one wants all the automobiles in this country to have governors that keep the speed at 45 miles per hour or less in order to prevent traffic fatalities.  The rewards of rapid mobility are worth the marginally increased risk of injury or death.

Use the issue of gun control as an issue illustrating a case where the question of ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ is the dominant consideration, and I think it confirms everything that I have said thus far.  Disagreements over proposed solutions to this issue remain even when there is significant agreement on the morally relevant features, and even the facts.  People on both sides of the issue disagree over the facts, i.e., what would the results of more gun control be.  Would people be more secure or less?  Would criminals get guns anyway and prey on a more defenseless public?  What are the constitutional issues?  Some people think the right to own guns is not for protection from each other, but for protection from government that gets to powerful. 

However, assume for a moment that there was total agreement on the facts and that increased gun control would prevent more gun related harms.  Even if we knew exactly what the results of more gun control laws would be, rational people would still disagree on how they ranked these harms and benefits.  Some people, like a few of my agrarian hunter cousins in the Midwest, would rather suffer a marginal increase in the probability of harm in order to preserve their freedom to own and use weapons. 

What conclusions do I draw?  First, it seems that any policy that produces increased freedom from harm that does not take away ‘freedom of action” is strongly justified.  Where the war on terrorist is concerned, these alternatives should be investigated and implemented right away.  Second, when government wants to take away some freedom to act to provide freedom from some harm, then theirs is the burden of proof.  Third, security and freedom are in a dynamic relationship.  No security and too much security squelch freedom to act, the first from fear, and the second from external constraints.  Freedom to act is maximized when moderate amounts of security are ensured.  I cannot comment on the details of how this relationship works.  That is an empirical question.  A good rule of thumb is to employ policies that maximize freedom from terrorist harms commensurate with preserving a maximum of freedom to.

One final thought about moral disagreement.  When I say that disagreement is ubiquitous and permanent, I am assuming cases with a sufficient level of moral complexity.  Every rational person wants ‘freedom of action’ and ‘freedom from harm’ in some idiosyncratic balance.  But in 99% of the cases I would argue that there is moral agreement on how to balance these two considerations in specific cases.