Sunday, August 4, 2013

Balancing Security With Liberty In A Modern Democracy

Individual Liberty & State Security


“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” 
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)

Brave New World: The front cover of  British novelist Aldous Huxley's [1894-1963] most well-known work, a dystopian fiction, which he wrote in 1931 and had published a year later. Industrialization, the First World War and the Russian revolution were all influencing factors in the novelist's views. The book speaks about loss of individuality in a modern fast-paced and technologically advanced society.
SourceWikipedia
 One of the fundamental tenets of democracy is individual liberty, not only liberty to follow one's conscience in regards to individual pursuits, but also liberty from fear, notably fear of the state and its intrusion in one’s private affairs—as long as such private affairs don't break any laws. An important caveat: the laws themselves have to be morally just, which is among the most important points of consideration in a democracy and has been a long-standing and continuing debate among citizens.

Now, that has always been a tricky balance. Most democratic nations can agree on a set of basic laws and principles to guide them on what kind of society they want. Such explains why democratic nations have strong laws and penalties against murder, theft, rape and crimes against private property. There are also laws against harming the State and its national interests, such as treason, sedition and espionage or spying. What is more tricky and open to interpretation are balancing the rights of the state against the interests of individual liberty. This has been and continues to be full of tension and conflict. [The NSA Scandal and other recent revelations about American espionage activities show what is at stake for democracies world-wide.]

Individuals desire, naturally, to live in a community in safety, free from abuse of all kinds. But that desire for security can lead to abuse and encroachment from the State and its apparatus, the various police and security forces under its jurisdiction. As a recent example, consider in Canada the reining Conservative government’s snooping bill, which it has tried to pass since 2009, an unnecessary and offensive intrusion into the lives of citizens. The bill seems similar in intent, if not scope, to what the Americans have enacted with its NSA legislation, which says much about the Harper Government’s thinking on the rights of citizens to privacy. 

In essence there is a decided lack of trust among Conservatives, notably so-called social conservatives, in Canadian citizens. We ought to be more than concerned; we ought to be outraged, since such sends a message that the State’s needs, whatever they might be, supersedes the rights of citizens in its most basic form—the right to privacy. Monitoring the online activities of citizens sounds Orwellian, because it is. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former Canadian prime minister, once famously said “there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Or any room, for that matter, real or virtual, we might add.

Hard-headed conservatives—law-and-order types— tend to argue its necessary, parroting the common dictum that if you are not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to fear. That saying might be true in most cases, we hope, but history has shown us that the State can be capricious and arbitrary, since it is run by humans who often act with emotion. Mistakes have been made; persons have been harmed irreparably. The State might act legally, since it makes the laws, but not always morally or humanely. William Gladstone, former British prime minister, explained the distinction between liberals and conservatives, which likely holds true today: “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”

Fear seems to be the ruling emotion these days, and it is used to enrich the state coffers. Governments have been looking for more money, due in large part to cover up their inefficiencies and poor oversight of the public purse. The easiest way is through taxes, both positive and negative. Yet, individual rights extend to the right to earn a living, a fundamental right if there ever was one. Yet, such rights have been continually eroded in the last few years with increasing legislation overseeing many areas of the lives of citizens.

It seems that the State in most democracies has been enacting more laws lately to protect its purported interests at the expense of its citizens. Some of these laws plainly lack merit, others are a justification to exact more money, either in taxes, surtaxes and fines, from citizens to feed cash-strapped governments of all levels. This game has to end soon.

In other words, an old-fashioned tax grab. Such excessive and egregious  measures do not affect the wealthy, for the plainly obvious reason that they have more money. But the majority are greatly affected, including small-business owners who have to close down because their business doesn't meet a new municipal or provincial or state by-law. It happens every day, unnoticed. Another business failure. Cause: inefficient and ineffectual government bureaucracy.

In Rights of Man, which Thomas Paine, drafted in 1791, three essentials ideas were elucidated: 1) Individuals were not born with a corruptible nature; 2) Government is a contrivance of free individuals; and 3) Government's sole purpose is safeguarding the family and his/her inherent, inalienable rights. Much of this thinking contained in this document derived from John Locke (1632-1704), the British philosopher; and from the ideas coming out of the Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason.

To a great degree, we can thank Thomas Paine for such a courageous document, one of the hallmarks of modern democracy. No doubt, its publication caused a furor in Britain. Paine was tried in absentia, and convicted for seditious libel against the Crown. But he had already left England and resided in France, where he was out of reach of the noose.

Today, schoolchildren might study this document as part of American history and might understand some of its implications. Government has expanded its role in the lives of its citizens, some for good measure, as in providing social programs and some less so, as when intruding unnecessarily in people's lives. Individuals have also asked for more rights, and again some are merited and some are not.

More government intervention often leads to less individual responsibility, or more important, diminished individual liberty, since governments then become paternal and patronizing towards its citizens. How one views society's health in terms of the level of individual liberty and individual responsibility greatly depends on such factors as wealth, religious views and political awareness and knowledge.

In many ways, designations like Left and Rights do not have the same meaning as 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago. Too much time is spent among the party faithful defending their party's actions and spewing opprobrium on the other party. What is often not examined in such blind devotion is whether the action or proposed legislation is morally defensible. This requires a set of principles, a standard in which to measure against. In a democracy, no political party has the high seat of morality; and no political party is as evil as its opponents say it is. Today, one can hardly tell the difference between the two major parties, not measured by rhetoric but by legislative action.

Let’s return a moment to events before the First World War, to before the introduction of democracy and Paine's document, notably, Point no. 3: Government’s sole purpose is safeguarding the family and his/her inherent, inalienable rights. Is this the case today in many of the world’s long-standing democracies, including in Canada, Britain, the U.S, France, Germany or Israel? Today, in a climate of fear, it has become natural to assume that the State ought to seek more power, safeguarding itself, which is not the same as safeguarding the family or the individual within the family. When the State has too much encompassing power, such can eventually lead a political system that has all the markings of authoritarianism or even totalitarianism.

In a review in the British Guardian, J.G. Ballard, a noted writer himself, made in a 2002 review of  Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual by Nicholas Murray the following astute observation:
Aldous Huxley was uncannily prophetic, a more astute guide to the future than any other 20th- century novelist. Even his casual asides have a surprising relevance to our own times. During the first world war, after America's entry, he warned: "I dread the inevitable acceleration of American world domination which will be the result of it all...Europe will no longer be Europe." His sentiment is widely echoed today, though too late for us to do anything about it. The worst fate for a prophet is for his predictions to come true, when everyone resents him for being so clear-eyed.
We feel the resentment, and it's stinging. Nobody wins, least of all the individual. If anyone needs reminding, that's each of us that comprise the State.

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A version of this post originally was published at Perry J. Greenbaum (March 7, 2012).