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On starting and winning a Public Safety Calculation Debate

At the last two Putney Debates, the ones addressed by Simon Davies of Privacy International on May 10, and by Mark Littlewood of Liberty on June 14, I have heard myself giving a little speech and have liked what I heard. This speech has gone approximately as follows.

Current debate about the proper limits of anti-terrorism, internet snooping, sharing of such information by different government departments, and so on and so forth, is now framed as a conflict between the demands of, on the one hand, the ever more centralised and ever more powerful state, and on the other hand, the freedom and the privacy of the individual. The first is assumed to be necessary for the satisfactory achievement of public safety. The second is presented only as a privately desirable benefit that must inevitably be sacrificed to a lesser or greater degree, the argument being merely about how much of this private benefit should be sacrificed. “Is this a price worth paying?” “Are we paying too big a price?” That an improvement in public safety will be purchased with this price is assumed.

The likes of Simon Davies and Mark Littlewood are both painfully aware that they spend their lives saying “yes but”. “Yes”, protecting the public is indeed important. “But”, we shouldn’t be quite so ready as we seem to be now to sacrifice personal freedom and personal privacy for public safety. Adriana Cronin‘s piece just below this one is also a good example of the kind of fighting-a-losing-battle agonising that I have in mind. And Samizdata’s most recent Slogan of the day also embodied this assumed relationship, which we were urged to defy, but not to disagree with as a false assumption. Once again, safety was presented as a price worth paying, although by including the word “temporary”, Ben Franklin at least hinted at a contrary theory of how things might really be.

I believe that if public safety and liberty continue to be regarded, even (especially!) by libertarians, as things that the people in general are to be asked to choose between, liberty is bound to be the loser.

This dangerous contrast reminds me of an earlier time, somewhat less than a century ago, when liberty was widely regarded as being a private benefit that ought to be sacrificed for economic reasons. Centralised state control of the economy was presented as being essential to achieve the maximum of public prosperity, in much the same way that large convoys were a better way to protect wartime merchant shipping than individually scattered vessels. (By the way, the convoy parallel is not my illustration only. I distinctly remember reading George Bernard Shaw, in a preface to one of his plays I think, using this illustration to make this exact argument.)

There then followed the “Economic Calculation Debate”, in which the likes of Hayek and von Mises did something that they are still not perhaps fully appreciated for. As academics they eventually triumphed. They stated their theoretical objections to centralised economic planning, and enough people in the West were convinced to keep capitalism bumbling onwards, thus enabling it to triumph utterly against centralised economic planning. In short, Mises and Hayek were right, and were proved right. But they also triumphed as propaganda street-fighters. What they did was turn the argument about economics from being freedom-versus-prosperty into freedom-is-necessary-for-prosperity. In order to have yourself an even semi-satisfactory twentieth century economy, you had to have freedom, if not for political stirrers then at least in the form of “economic freedom”, for people such as businessmen and industrial investors.

I wonder, might the same thing apply to public safety? Is centralised power the answer to achieving the defence of good people against bad people, or is centralised power actually one of the biggest problems? It is now being said, and I’m most definitely one of the ones saying it, that the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were not completely missed. Quite a lot of people observed various fishy things going on. The problem was that the one almighty, all powerful, all knowing, all seeing Washington Public Protection Apparatus had its single, collective, bureaucratic mind on other things.

But suppose that the power to act had been as dispersed as the power to observe. Consider those people who picked up those vital stories that were actually not acted upon by the great Washington Security Monster, about strange Saudi Arabians taking flying lessons but being indifferent to the usually somewhat essential art of actually landing an airplane. Suppose that those people had been allowed simply to announce, perhaps to their local media, that these guys sure were behaving strangely, and suppose they’d urged the local media hacks to chase the story up. Hey, what are you guys doing? Who are you? What are your real names? Would those strange Saudis have had such an easy ride, so to speak? I think not. I think it distinctly possible that they might have called the whole thing off.

You’ll never prove this kind of thing (although you can illustrate your generalised theory/suspicions) merely with individual anecdotes. What’s needed is a transformed theoretical framework, a repainted big picture, a different and utterly contrary way of looking at things to the way things are looked at now. A new meta-context.

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