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Mr Blog asks the right question but gets the wrong answer

Cards on the table. The bosses of this blog are out of town, and although they may be able to stick stuff up here from time to time, they may be distracted. I’m one of the people they hope will keep things buzzing in their absence. So I googled a few obvious things like “surveillance” and “privacy” and got little that was new, and then I tried “Freedom versus Security”, and got to this piece at Mr Blog, from way back in August.

Mr Blog has this to say on the matter:

Defining the debate as “freedom versus security” circumvents the question of whether the various proposals, in fact, improve security. Where is the evidence for this assumption that any of these measures can help ensure security?

He then attacks various supposed US security measures on cost effectiveness grounds. This critique is good as far as it goes. Indeed we do not want to hand on to our grandchildren a society bankrupted by a million futile security measures which weren’t. That’s true.

But I think Mr Blog is making a fundamental error of omission here. The really big consequence of framing things as “freedom versus security” is to smuggle past you the notion that “freedom” can never ever be any good for “security”. Yet plainly it can.

If the populus is numbed into a state of brainless inertia by laws that take away their freedom, and which simultaneously promise to create security, then a major source of security, in the form of individuals protecting themselves and each other, may be switched off, and by the very measures which were supposedly going to make us all more secure. The “cost” of “security” measures isn’t only that they cost us a ton of money, or even that they cost us freedom. What if, by costing us freedom, they also reduce security? That’s the biggest problem with framing this argument as “freedom versus security”.

As I have probably said here before, this debate reminds me of the Economic Calculation debate of a hundred years ago, and Mr Blog is just like one of those anti-economic-planning grumblers of days gone by who complained that planning would be more of a muddle and less of a spur to prosperity than pro-planners fancied, and that it would eat up our freedoms to insufficiently good effect. But that was to miss the vital point about prosperity, which was that in order to get it, you had to have freedom. No freedom, no prosperity.

What if security is the same? No freedom, no security. I think it is, and I think that’s true. And I want some latter day Von Mises to write a huge book which proves it.

Mr Blog’s error is all the more distressing because he frames the question so clearly.

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4 comments to Mr Blog asks the right question but gets the wrong answer

  • There is a large lobby in the USA which sees the “security” issues mostly as an issue of “freedom” which gets translated into the “right to bear arms” (not 18th Century muskets, but the most lethal of modern weapons please)

    For example, here in the UK, the protests against potential RFID tags on consumer products draw very peaceable, low key, polite and civilised sort of people.

    In the USA, they have these as well, but there is also support from groups like Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership Inc whose greatest fear seems to be that RFID tags on guns or ammunition might become feasible (both of which are on sale from US supermarkets)

  • I don’t disagree with your post at all. I don’t believe my little rant that you reference is inconsistent with your point. I agree completely. You’re saying some things I agree with, but it doesn’t come across well in my little rant. To some degree I was trying to say the same thing, that the whole point of claiming that security always trades-off against privacy is a falacy, that you must always sacrifice one for the other. I tried to say that by saying that many of the measures being deployed or proposed only harm privacy and have no positive impact on security at all. Anyway, nice post.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Thanks Mr B, for taking my post in the exactly right spirit. I disagreed with nothing you said either!

    Basically, I think that if we argue the finer points of our case amongst ourselves, we are that much more likely to draw attention to it from third parties.

    We also make our own case all the stronger.

    Thanks again.

  • I hate to interupt a blogosphere love-fest but there is something which escapes me and perhaps it is because it is still very early here on the leftish coast of NA. You say, Brian, ” What if, by costing us freedom, they also reduce security?”

    Could you please offer an example of such a phenomenon? Are you referring back to “If the populus is numbed into a state of brainless inertia by laws that take away their freedom, and which simultaneously promise to create security, then a major source of security, in the form of individuals protecting themselves and each other, may be switched off…”

    Sorta of like relying on TV cameras on lamp-posts rather than people looking out their front windows?