Debate: The Priority of Security or Liberty?
This article is composed of two speeches made at a recent debate night at the University of Birmingham Conservative Society’s Port and Policy event.
Security over Liberty (Jake Scott)
Benjamin Franklin remarked in 1755 that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This was allowed to become a rallying call against counter-terrorism measures; but if you will indulge me I would like to discuss the very meanings of the terms.
First, what is individual liberty? Montesquieu considered liberty to be the freedom to do that which the laws do not prohibit; even J. S. Mill remarked that “compulsion [is] justifiable only for the security of others”. And it must be distinguished from license: liberty is a responsible freedom, the capacity to make decisions with conscience for others’ safety; license is a selfish freedom, made with no regard for the safety and welbeing of others.
What, then, is security? I suggest it is the liberty from others’ license: after all, “absolute liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs”. When one looks back through the history of political thought, the question of balancing liberty with security has been central to the Western tradition, with Hobbes summarising the need for prioritising security over liberty, at least in the first instance. This is because security is a method of securing liberty, not limiting it; indeed, “liberty” is a relative term even to the individual, who has very little capacity for liberty in his youth, and again in his old age; or even in our own circumstance, the liberty for a woman to walk through a dark alley is limited by the license of predatory men to abuse them – and what is the reason? An absence of security.
This means to me, that security and liberty are inseparable. First, we must achieve security, that our liberty may be exercised properly. And to do this, we must prevent all those selfish, inconsiderate and harmful desires from being acted upon: the most basic of those desires such as murder, theft and so forth. And this is both an internal concern, and an external one; after all, a State exists not to coordinate and manage the private lives of its citizens. Instead, a State exists first and foremost to protect its inhabitants; like an eggshell, it has no goal of its own, save the security of the embryo within.
This is not to say that the State cannot go too far in the name of security; indeed, one only has to look at the first half of the previous century to see what happens when the moral concerns of safety become political ones. The security of the revolution or the Volk required the expulsion of dangerous elements, for instance. But I argue, that the often-misquoted Franklin is wrong: the question of desert is too abstract, too high-flown, and too ancient. In an era when threats to our individual liberty are only on the increase, those who would sacrifice security for the idea of liberty shall have neither.
Liberty over Security (Adam Belcher):
Thank you Madam Speaker,
I imagine that this debate will be more about abstract principles than concrete policies, so I’m sure the House will permit me to be rhetorical.
It is often said that the first priority of the state is the safety of its citizens, and this is true. At the same time, as a society, we expect a high degree of freedom. These two principles are not incompatible. A society can have both, provided it is willing to incur the expense of having to allocate more resources to public safety and law enforcement.
It may be tempting to sacrifice certain civil liberties if it means we can address terrorism and organised crime more cheaply and efficiently. But every time we do this, we erode the individual freedoms which are the bedrock of our civilisation. Rights such as free speech don’t make us weaker, they make us stronger. The government should trust its citizens. We should be treated like adults, not like children. We’re supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Taking away the freedoms of everyone because of a tiny minority is like putting the whole class in detention because one kid is misbehaving.
And so I will argue what I have argued multiple times in the past at Port and Policy, which is that the police don’t need more powers, they need more resources. The police have been seriously under-funded by this government. We need more police officers on patrol, better trained police, better police technology, and more community support officers. Surrendering our rights is the easy way out but it is not the right thing to do.
I urge the House to support the motion.