Virtually everybody in America can recite Benjamin Franklin’s hyper-famous quotation about “liberty” and “safety” — and virtually everybody does. So allow me to join the ranks: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Sadly, this quote is now so often deployed that it has come effectively to demonstrate George Orwell’s perspicacious observation that familiar sayings “spread by imitation” are commonly recited without much thought. This is troubling, for Franklin’s words carry with them a difficult, incommodious, but vital implication: that liberty is an imperative, and its price is discomfort, danger, and even, to borrow from Patrick Henry, death. Lest you wonder how serious Franklin was about abstractions, in the sentence before the famous line, he contended that “Massachusetts must suffer all the Hazards and Mischiefs of War, rather than admit the Alteration of their Charters and Laws by Parliament.”
In our frivolous age, we are comforted by politicians who assure us that we never need to make such difficult choices. Their promise is invariably of a “third way.” There is no such thing. Last week, the president lamented that Americans expect to “have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” Obama is correct to warn us that we cannot have it both ways, but it’s impossible to ignore that there are few politicians who have spent as much time as he trying to convince the country that we need never face a trade-off.
The adult truth, as ever, is that being free means accepting the negative consequences of being free. I daresay that if cameras were installed in every one of the Republic’s private bedrooms and monitored around the clock by well-meaning sentinels, then the rates of both domestic violence and spousal murder would decrease dramatically. But a free people must instinctively reject such measures as a profound threat to their liberty and, in doing so, accept the risks of unregulated home life. Alas, the story of the last century is the tale of a gradually diminishing tolerance for risk. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. In almost all areas, our modern calculation is quite the opposite.
A popular rejoinder to those of us who agree with Jefferson’s contention — and who are willing to run with it to the point of genuine discomfort — is that we are neo-Luddites, heirs of William Blake who hark back to a lost Ruritanian age. Inherent in such accusations is the suggestion that the founding principles of the United States are not timeless and immutable, but instead the product of another era. From the beginning of the Republic, we have heard people insinuate this, urging that we give up on individual liberty because the domestic and foreign threats have become too great, or technology has grown so ubiquitous, or — worst of all — that the People could not stop the state even if wished to. On his cable-news show, which is conveniently protected by the First Amendment, Bill Maher took this to its logical conclusion last week, arguing that the Founding Fathers could never have imagined these threats, and asking pugnaciously whether the Fourth Amendment was now as obsolete as he considers the Second to be. Suffice it to say that to take this position is to accept that the American ideal of a limited government that exercises its powers judiciously and only with explicit permission is no longer viable.
One expects this stuff from the Left: It has been its hallmark since the Jacobins. But conservatives and libertarians should have no part of it. Earl Warren’s grave contention that “the fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a great danger to the privacy of the individual” was not an unfalsifiable prediction, but a warning. To throw up one’s hands at this and say “Oh, well” is to embrace the tentacles of the state and, in the words of the poet Richard Brautigan, to welcome a country in which we are “all watched over by machines of loving grace.” I will not stand for that. Will you?
When I argue about this question with friends, they usually tell me that it is unreasonable for me to expect my liberty to remain intact in the electronic realm. I am afraid that this is an intolerable conceit. Whether they intend to or not, defenders of our surveillance state help weaken our expectation of privacy, and they blur the crucial line between the public and private spheres.
“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom,” said William Pitt the Younger. “It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” If I ceased to be a “sensible, law-abiding Englishman” and elected to commit a crime — or, for that matter, if the authorities had reasonable cause to suspect that I had done so — I would be happy to concede that my privacy, after the relevant permissions were sought, would be abrogated.