Saturday, September 27, 2008

Liberty, security, and luxury

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-Benjamin Franklin
Over the past decade we have been constantly exhorted to trade our liberties for safety--both economic and physical. Sometimes, the liberties in question have been essential. As I tried to illustrate with a tribute to Frederic Douglass, we should not view our liberty as a luxury to be sacrificed in the name of security; indeed, liberty is the basis of our security. We cannot rely on others (e.g. the Feds) to protect us from a dangerous world, if that requires that we relinquish some of our ability to navigate the threats and challenges in the world on our own.

The sad thing is that even as we have been asked to delegate our personal rights to a government that seems determined to avoid oversight, we have undermined our own security with our thoughtless pursuit of luxury (eloquently described by One Drop at Too Sense). Our financial system is freezing up because everyone, from bankers down to homeowners, was blinded by the easy money that fell into their hands so that they refused to consider the risks that they were taking. Now people are failing to make mortgage payments, banks are failing on their obligations, and we are facing the prospect of a depression--mass business closure, mass unemployment, and mass homelessness.

This is not the recipe for security. Without a functioning economy we will not have the ability to fight terrorists, or any other military threat that may arise. Anyway, an economic depression will damage our health and community much more than any terrorist could.

This financial problem didn't come out of the blue--the signs have been there for years, most prominently in our trade deficit and the total absence of personal savings. To see how deep we're in the hole, consider the magnitude of our total debt (government and private)--it stands at 350% of GDP after growing for a few decades from a baseline of 150% of GDP from the 50's thru the 70's.

After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, you might have thought that Americans would get serious and dedicate our immense resources to the task of creating security at home and in the world. Instead, our President told us to shop and let him take care of our security. We dutifully continued with a binge of self-indulgence unparalleled in human history (perhaps comforted by faith in the paradox of thrift). Not only did we fail to reshape the world, but we couldn't even run our own country in a sustainable manner. Now that our credit has been cut off, what are we to do?

We've had a scare, and we may have tough times ahead of us. We can recover, and I believe that we can go on to transform the world for the better if we recognize that there are still plenty of problems in the world (even in America) and that we are not entitled to anything. We need to face our problems head-on.