Trading liberty for security revisited
By: Robert E. Meyer
It has been years since I received so many inquiries regarding a piece I wrote. The controversy surrounding domestic surveillance abuses has resulted in many people asking whether I still hold the same views now that this alleged scandal has been uncovered.
The piece was originally entitled Trading Liberty For Security: A Misuse of Benjamin Franklin. The piece argued that the Patriot Act was a legitimate means of protecting citizens from terrorists threats, and that there has always been a trade-off between liberty and security.
Franklin’s original quote from 1755 was “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” My beef was that people were truncating the quotation to read “Those who trade liberty for security deserve neither.” The point was that this iteration distorts the more nuanced statement by Franklin to infer that any trade-off between liberty and security was illegitimate. Few people even bother to consider the topical and historical context of Franklin’s quotation, before baptizing it with their own convictions.
I think many civil libertarians and conservatives would argue that the government should never have been given the powers vested in the Patriot Act, because giving such power invites corruption and abuse. It was hard to argue against that point then and it’s even more difficult to argue against it right now. Limited government necessarily means limiting the powers of the federal government to the point were it has just enough authority to accomplish it’s constitutional duties.
But we don’t forbid all things merely because they have potential for abuse. You wouldn’t want your daughter to date Charles Manson, but you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t prevent your daughter from dating altogether, just because you know there are creeps out there.
Likewise there is potential for abuse among the citizenry. When John Adams stated “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people, and is wholly inadequate for the government of any other,” he was describing the conditions under which limited government would prevail, not denying people the right of self-government because it was risky.
Historically, a parallel situation may be found in Abraham Lincoln’s action of suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War. The Constitution in Section 9, Clause 2 reads…
“The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”
Notice that the Constitution allows for situations when public safety trumps the rights of an individual or group. Lincoln’s actions should have been questioned and evaluated by the people and by Congress, and then the determination of consequences would depend on the outcome of that debate. But we can’t merely declare that Lincoln’s actions were unconstitutional out of hand.
A similar investigation and evaluation must be undertaken today by Congress and the people regarding the limitations of surveillance and data collection. I think one big mistake being made is to assume that the latest activities under protest are identical to the situations that arose during the Bush Administration. Does the problem arise specifically from the Patriot Act, or an abuse of it?
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin makes a case in the June 16, 2013 issue of International Business News.
“Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., accused President Barack Obama of falsely claiming that the controversial 2001 Patriot Act authorizes NSA surveillance. In fact, he said, the law was ‘designed to protect liberties,’ and the agency’s activities are an abuse of the law…But Sensenbrenner said the Patriot Act, which was drafted in response to the 9/11 attacks, does not grant the government the authority to collect records of every phone call made by every American.”
The issue really amounts to asking who can be trusted? How was the Benghazi debacle, The IRS scandal, The Fast and Furious fiasco, and a host of questionable administrative decisions, directly related to the Patriot Act?
Elections have consequences. They ultimately give us, agendas, judicial appointments, and selections and retentions of agency personnel and department heads. These people are chosen, ostensibly because they mirror the values of the leaders selecting them. All this has happened in an administration that declared its reputation would be the most transparent administration in history. Some of you voted for Obama, then you voted him in again despite the lack of transparency on steroids. Still you stubbornly stand by your man.
If you wish to blame passage of the Patriot Act for the NSA surveillance abuses, I’ll bow to the energy of your convictions. But let’s not have tunnel vision. We must understand that this is one issue related to a bigger problem: The character and worldview of those representing the administration in power.