Freedom Has Priority Over Safety

There is a natural tension in human affairs between freedom and safety.  This tension has been highlighted by the COVID pandemic and was brought into sharp focus by President Biden’s fallacious and dismissive remark about freedom during his recent, odd appearance on a CNN town hall.  His uncomfortable attempt at sarcasm “'I have the freedom to kill you with my COVID.’  No, I mean come on! Freedom...” was addled by any number of factors.  The President appears to believe that freedom and safety are exclusive matters of preference, like iPhone versus Android.  The President’s rather shallow attention to the issue is consistent with Arnold Schwarzenegger's more pointed opinion, “Screw your freedom!”

Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Schwarzenegger seem of the opinions that safety is preferable to freedom, and that one can be had by merely relinquishing a sufficient quantity of the other.  Both propositions are false. 

The relative importance of liberty and safety is not a novel question. It is the basis of Benjamin Franklin's aphorism that those who would give up liberty for a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety, and the more subtle metaphorical adage of J. A. Shedd: "A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for." 

Common experience does not support the notion that safety is preferable to liberty. People are noted to take great risks, including risking their lives, to flee oppressive regimes.  There are constitutional protections for liberty interests such as privacy and due process, even though those protections may be accompanied by risks to public safety.  History is full of examples of people who risked and gave their lives, both in pursuit of and in defense of freedom.

These observations are consistent with the idea that people do not inherently favor safety over freedom but do not dispel the dubious idea that one can have safety in exchange for freedom.  They also do not address the externality aspect of freedom, i.e., that one person’s exercise of his own freedom poses a risk to others without their knowledge or consent.

This latter concern warrants deeper examination.  An obvious point is the symmetrical nature of the imposition: one’s demand for safety imposes an involuntary burden on another’s freedom, just as freedom imposes on safety.  One is left where he began, with both freedom and safety being viewed as matters of mere social preference.  The dispute seems to be unresolvable as long as this view is accepted.  History, however, does not support this view.

The fundamental idea that safety can be purchased by giving up a measure of freedom is refuted by a simple observation: societies in which freedom is restricted by the state, as per Mr. Franklin, end up with neither liberty nor safety.  A synopsis of 20th-century authoritarianism is sufficient to establish this fact, with loss of freedom accompanied by body counts in the tens of millions.  The use of force required to enforce restrictions on freedom unavoidably involves threats to safety.  The idea that safety can be had in exchange for freedom is an illusion.  It is not just freedom that is being surrendered, but other forms of safety. 

When people such as Mr. Biden and Mr. Schwarzenegger disparage freedom, they imply that freedom is an individual indulgence that is tolerated despite its burdens on others.  Freedom is instead a part of human nature and an undeniable historical good. It benefits the societies that nurture it.  Freedom produces progress, knowledge, innovation, and affluence, and these in turn provide the desirable type of safety that is compatible with human flourishing.   

The above observations are empirical.  They are things that the average person can observe or contemplate and draw his own conclusions.  They do not however provide a mechanism to explain why sacrificing freedom in pursuit of safety is counterproductive, nor for why freedom generally takes priority over safety when the two conflict.  

A common phrase used in policy debates is “vulnerable populations.”  A vulnerable population is, by definition, not safe.  Populations become vulnerable when they become dependent since they are vulnerable to the behavior and capacity of whatever they are dependent upon.  A population, for example, that is dependent on the charity of others is vulnerable to the circumstances of its benefactors.  A population that has relinquished its freedom is dependent on the whims and interests of its rulers.  The population is dependent, and therefore vulnerable and unsafe.  This is the mechanism that linked the imposition of authoritarian rule in the former Soviet Union with the disaster of the Holodomor.  There is no shortage of similar examples, even if one were limited to the middle fifty years of the last century.   

The loss of freedom eventually results in the loss not only of safety but also of general well-being.  Dependency, a condition that is unavoidably associated with vulnerability, produces other pathologies such as depression, substance abuse, suicide, violence, etc.  The human psyche does not accommodate dependence well, nor does it the common accompaniment of helplessness.

The above is not to argue that freedom overrides safety in all cases, and under all circumstances.   The point is that safety cannot be invoked as an all-purpose rationale for infringing on freedom.  There are obviously some significant safety concerns that involve reasonable infringements on the freedom of individuals, ranging from how fast one can drive a car on a public street to who can perform surgery. 

The rational presumption should be that freedom takes priority over safety unless a compelling case can be shown to the contrary, and even then, the restriction on freedom should be the minimum necessary.  The valid restrictions on freedom imposed in the interest of the safety or rights of others require individual consideration and appropriate boundaries.   

In the context of Mr. Biden’s remarks, in particular, the supposed benefits of vaccine mandates, with their less-than-hoped for performance, the meandering advice of public health bureaucrats, and the risk posed by the virus come nowhere near justifying infringing upon people’s ability to work or decide for themselves what medical interventions to accept.  

Photo credit: Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan Public Domain Pictures

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