Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them.

By comparison, consider the tragic case of France, whose own revolution was in many ways far bolder and more radical than its American predecessor, but which failed largely because the country was alone in a continent full of absolute monarchies, some of which bordered it. The threat of invasion is what led to the justifications for brutal measures that ultimately culminated in the Reign of Terror and, thereafter, the rise of the strongman Napoleon.

There is also the example of Russia, which never had the luxury of being able to even consider democracy, because its once peaceable inhabitants were too busy being raided and enslaved by surrounding powers, leading them to enlist the help of mercenaries and warlords to protect them — and thereby setting in motion a succession of autocrats to protect the nation from one foreign threat after another (to say nothing of the cynicism that such an experience has understand imbued into the political culture).

When a country is beset by constant insecurity, be it from external or internal forces, it makes higher level concerns about freedom of speech, assembly, etc. far less immediately pressing than simply trying to survive — hence why periods of war are often characterized by some degree of suspension of democracy, often with the tacit acceptance of the majority of the populace.

Of course, there are other factors determining how, when, and to what degree a free political culture emerges; moreover, it is not as if every poor, war-torn, or perennially troubled society is without its appreciation for consent by the governed and freedoms of all kinds. But I think we have to be honest in recognizing that there is quite a lot of luck that goes into setting up the right conditions — namely security — in which liberty and democracy can thrive.

What are your thoughts?

One comment on “Liberty v. Security?

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