Friedman, Freedom, and Temporary Safety

Thomas Friedman is a boob.

I worry about [another 9/11] even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.

Privacy is freedom. I’m not sure whether this is self-evident, so I may flesh it out later. Until then: What is it that Big Brother is doing?

Friedman’s logic is this: we have to give up some freedom now so that we remain safe.

Ben Franklin had something to say about that.

Friedman knows that his position is contrary to the principles on which this nation were founded. So he protests that he “reluctantly, very reluctantly” gives up essential freedom, and rationalizes the surrender: We must remain safe not for safety’s own sake, but because otherwise we hand the state an excuse to take away more of our freedom. Friedman is willing to give up freedom to fight the last war—to prevent the next 9/11—not because he’s a simpering statist but because he cares so deeply about our freedom.

But here’s the thing: the last 9/11 handed the state every excuse it needed to take away as much of our freedom as it could justify with a straight face. How much freedom? All of it. When the executive claims the authority to kill anyone anywhere, any freedom we seem to have is merely symbolic.

Friedman says, “Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11.” There seems to be some difference in his brain between that statement and “Do whatever you need to do, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again”:

That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.

Friedman thinks he can draw the line here and preserve some freedom. He is willing to allow the state to track him and his children and know who they are talking to, how often, and for how long because he sees that as the price of not having the state listen in on the calls. But I wouldn’t draw the line where he does, neither does the government. It’s not what I would call a principled distinction. Neither “content is more essential, and as far as we know they’re not already hoovering up content” nor “we can trust secret courts” is a compelling argument.

Maybe Friedman is right: maybe 99 percent of Americans would, after another 9/11, be willing to give up freedom to be made safe. Math is hard, and Americans have a cavalier attitude toward their freedoms; they’re willing to give them up on less provocation.

So what’s the solution for those of us who are not willing to sell liberty cheaply?

We could take the Friedman approach and say “this far but, golly gee, no farther please” in the assumption that by giving up some freedom we can preserve the rest. But this approach is doomed to failure because even if we succeed in fighting the last war, something else will come along that justifies, in the minds of the booboisie, less freedom. Meanwhile, the Friedman approach trains the 99% to give up essential freedom for temporary safety, teaches the government that we will not push back, and so hastens liberty’s eventual demise.

Or we could say “this will not stand” and teach the booboisie to push back. We might never get more than 50% on the side of liberty in the face of fear, but we do not need a majority to prevail.

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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