L. Neil Smith's
Number 182, July 15, 2002


The Liberty vs. Security Game
by David Rostcheck

Exclusive to TLE

What do gun control laws, random airport passenger searches, and drug tests for public school students who engage in after-school activities all have in common?

All of them make you less safe.

Those who would decrease your liberty often frame their discussion in terms of "liberty vs. security", implying that we gain one only at the expense of another, and that reducing your liberty will increase your security.

Even if this were true, trading liberty for a safer society would be a bad trade. Police states like the Soviet Union may have boasted a low crime rate, but their citizens risked barbed wire and machine guns to reach freedom in the West. Those who favor tyranny over liberty usually have unrealistic expectations for their happiness under tyranny.

Worse still, the "liberty vs. security" discussion ignores the reality that many of the moves that oppress liberty actually reduce security. Think about that - trading liberty for security is a lose-lose deal. Your submission to government searches at the airport makes you more likely to die in a hijacking.

Gun control laws, random passenger searches, and drug tests for students all reduce security because all are targeted at the general population. The overwhelming majority of people are not dangerous criminals, so any program that attempts to find criminals by randomly searching the entire population is going to waste almost all of its effort inspecting people who were not going to commit crimes anyway. Imagine an episode of "Homicide" where the detectives had to question every tenth person in the city instead of being able to follow up on good leads. They would not solve many crimes, would they?

Those who advocate these faux "security" programs tend to speak as if that wasted effort were all free, but of course it is not. We pay a finite amount of taxes, which buy us a finite amount of police resources. We can only afford so many hours of police work, so if we require the police to file reports on normal citizens or screen through crowds of unlikely suspects, they simply cannot spend much time checking out the shady characters. Every time we pass a gun licensing law, we must take police officers off the street to process paperwork, most of which is not in any way connected with criminals. If we then want to make up for all the lost patrol officers, we must raise taxes and hire more policemen. There is simply no such thing as a free lunch.

And every dollar we spend on ineffective policing is a dollar that could have been spend on effective policing instead. When we test every student to determine if they have used drugs, we waste money and attention that could have been focused on identifying and treating those poorly-performing students who might have a real problem.

Not surprisingly, when police effort is diverted into tracking the general population, real criminal activity flourishes. The "security" laws shift police resources away from policing actual criminals, reducing the population's real security. Further, such laws produce large crowds of people to be tested. The real criminals are usually "lost in the crowd" and missed. We test all drivers before giving them licenses, but the test cannot be very demanding if we are to process large numbers of people through it - so our streets are filled with dangerous, but fully licensed, drivers. Would you rather be a hijacker in Israel, where the police focus most of their attention on the few suspicious people they find, or in America, where the screener will check you out only if the dice rule against you, and must meet an hourly quota?

Laws that curtail the liberty of the general population have no public safety value; they serve only to control the population. A controlled population benefits politicians, who can better predict their votes. For example, the more people work on big "security" programs, the more people will constantly vote the politicians more money, in the hopes that their jobs will survive the next budget round.

But a controlled population is less safe than a free population. In a free society, you could choose to travel on the airline that best met your own security standards. When the government handles security, everyone gets the same "one-size-fits-all" bureaucratic security plan, and it may not be any good. Free from restriction, individual citizens tend to tailor their personal security preparations to be most effective for their situation. For example, states where law-abiding citizens can carry concealed firearms for personal protection see their crime rate fall, while states that impose barriers on gun ownership by private citizens have seen crime rates increase. The more self-defense choices you have, the better decisions you can make.

Further, a bureaucrat engaged in empire-building may make decisions that make you less safe but increase his personal budget, head count, or power. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover spent tax money investigating and harassing his personal enemies. Current Transportation Security Agency head John Magaw advocates a massive and expensive Air Marshall program over simply allowing airlines to do the same thing more effectively on their own dime. Mr. Magaw is neither stupid nor illogical, but he has self-interest, and what benefits his personal empire may diminish your personal security. From the IRS to the Town Clerk, a rogue bureaucrat who takes a grudge to you is bad news, and the more controlled you are, the more such individuals you may run up against.

The "liberty vs. security" choice is a lose-lose proposition - it's like paying someone to rob your house. When we surrender our liberty, we lose our ability to protect ourselves against an intrusive government. At the same time, when we saddle the police with the task of screening all the population, they cannot focus their effort on the cases with probable cause, and thus cannot protect us effectively. Protect both your liberty and your safety, and don't play the zero-sum "liberty vs. security" game.

Libertarian activist David Rostcheck is the Executive Director of the North Bridge Training Institute, an education and training company. He teaches the Engage! series of political action training classes and works as a civil rights activist with the Pink Pistols, a gay-friendly pro-gun group.



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