What is Freedom?

When I read or hear reports about the NSA’s massive spying there is often a point of view elucidated as follows: some argue that they will surrender some amount of their liberty in return for their safety.  This is at best a false argument and unfortunately is given improper weight from the members of the press.

It is quite understandable that a society cannot function if said society is destroyed by outside threats.  John Stuart Mill and our founders understood this well.  They examined the root necessities of the power of individuals to exercise power over others. They realized that this power must be extremely limited and tied to very necessary ends.  It was understood that this power is necessary and dangerous as the accumulated power can be used against citizens with the same force and effect as it is used against outside threats.

“Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies.  To prevent the weaker members of the community from being prayed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down.  But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defense against his beak and claws.  The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

The balance between liberty and security cannot unfortunately be drawn completely in favor of liberty.  We all want our government to protect us from real and understood threats.  Terrorism is unfortunately a real threat in our society.  This need to be protected from real and understood threats is the basis for societies justified power over others.

“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will , is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

It is understood and generally accepted that power can be exercised to the extent necessary to salvage civil society.  To what extent these powers are used and when they are allowed to be exercised are the questions of our time. Unfortunately, some pretend that the present questions we face as as a nation are novel ideations that only our generations have faced and thus the lessons of the past can be dashed aside as inapplicable to our present predicaments.  These very arguments attempt to compel us to give up our basic liberty for protection from threats.  This  inability to understand that our challenges are not unique is a fallacy of hubris and a failure of character.

“All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people.  Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law.  What these rules should be is the principle question of human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving.  No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another.  Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which making had always been agreed.” John Stuart Mill 1859

The questions of the balance of liberty and security has thusly been debated since the creation of government.  The question boils down to one of line drawing.  Where is the line drawn between liberty and security?  What human freedoms do we allow the collective to violate in order to save the individual.  Throughout time mankind has made these decisions and all to often on the basis of the decisions is the whim of personal opinion.

“There is, in fact, no recognised principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is customarily tested.  People decide according to their personal preferences. Some, whenever they see any good to be done, or evil to be remedied, would willingly instigate the government to undertake the business; while others prefer to bear almost any amount of social evil, rather than add one to the departments of human interest amenable to governmental control.  And men range themselves on one or the other side in any particular thing which it is proposed that the government should do, or according to the belief they entertain that the government would, or would not, do it in the manner they prefer; but very rarely on account of any opinion to which they consistently adhere, as to what things are fit to be done by a government.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

We, as a society, must realize that we are an advanced people and that we have set up limitations on our government of which they cannot impede.

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.  Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate to find one.  But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.” John Stuart Mill 1859

Since September 11, 2001 there has undeniably been a need to protect Americans from an outside force.  What Americans have been cheated of is the ability to debate, and be informed of, the extent and amount of liberties that have been suffered in this battle.  The very limits that have been established to constrain the power of our governing officials has presumably been violated.  They cannot violate these rights any more than I can sell a house I do not own.

The persons who claim to accede their liberty in return for protection from terrorists know not what they accede.  Our government has not allowed its citizens to see how the laws it has passed has been interpreted.  It is each individual’s right to decide what they will accede in the fight against terrorism.  Until we understand what is at stake we cannot begin to bargain.  Americans have had the terms hidden, yet asked to sign away the rights and privileges guaranteed under the Constitution.  Our basic liberties are at stake and our government has asked us to sign a blank check upon which the cost is never revealed.

I refer again to John Stuart Mill as he has expressed the essence of the very liberties we are perilously risking.

“This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty.  It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.  The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.  Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject of such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.  Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified.  The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.  Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual.  Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

A valid objection may be formed to argue that I speak mostly of basic liberties and avoid the questions of the dangers we face.  This is necessarily because the dangers we face are as classified as the liberties we have sacrificed.

I watch as the ‘Freedom Tower’ rises outside of my office window.  We are approaching the 12 year anniversary of those horrific acts.  Exigency can only last for so long.  A truly free society deserves to know what entreaties their government has taken upon their liberties.  No matter who temporarily is elected into positions in our government we exist as a government of, by, and for the people.  It is not for our politicians to decide in secret what laws they will or will not obey.  It is exceedingly unfortunate that we learn that all branches of our government were involved in this mass deception.  To date the media cannot inform of us of the dangers we face and the liberties we have sacrificed in the name of protecting us from these dangers.  Until they can inform us of the specifics they should not give credence to the argument that some find it acceptable to sacrifice some liberty for security.


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