Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the compatibility of liberty with public safety in her fourth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
It seems that in today’s world our security and safety are constantly under threat. Every day brings more tragic news of innocent people murdered, women killed by strangers or beaten by violent husbands, children co-opted for economic or political gains, racists and extremist views given undue publicity. Political expediency demands quick response by governments to prevent such occurrences. They trade off our personal liberty for the good of public safety and security. The outcomes may make us temporarily feel safer, but actually apply discrimination or restriction upon society’s minority groups, the women and children at risk, restriction of freedom of expression or lifestyle for those under threat in order to secure their safety.
Many people argue that there is always a trade-off between liberty and safety, between freedom and security. Others suggest that safety response must cut through any considerations of liberty, and restrictions on minority groups must take priority for the good of the society. Still others think that security is a pre-requisite for liberty and freedom, to protect the collective well-being. A well-defined barrier will prevent ‘evil’ from seeping into society, so we can all sleep well at night.
Safety through restriction doesn’t necessarily mitigate the risk, and can bring unintended consequences that can harm long-term liberty. A well-intended curtailment of freedom for the sake of protection can turn into a vicious cycle of ever greater restrictions of liberty. We are told that the girl who is murdered in an alley shouldn’t have been wandering in the dark alone. The man with the funny headdress or dark skin is to be feared or discredited because he is one of the ‘other’ and shouldn’t be living amongst us. The evil of fear grows and ferments within our society, and no barrier can keep it out.
By engaging in Sir Isaiah Berlin’s two-toned notion of personal liberty as both freedom from oppression (safety) and freedom to do what we want to do (liberty), we see a symbiotic relationship between safety and liberty. Their practices must exist together and evolve sustainably over time. Every citizen must be equally free and safe to reach their potential in accordance with human rights principles for today’s societal needs. Future generations must similarly be accorded the same rights. This can only occur in an open, just and inclusive society, where we recognise our bonds and obligations to our fellow human beings and their individual rights within an integrated society.
In order to promote human flourishing, we need to recognise and celebrate the diversity and temporal position that we hold in our universe. We must undertake custodial responsibility as a society to look after the security and safety of our environment, the food, water, shelter, energy and climate that we all need to survive. We must create a virtuous cycle whereby the positive contributions of all humanity can be celebrated, protected and encouraged.
We must promote both liberty and public safety with a long view to the consequences of today’s decisions on today’s complex society, as well as tomorrow’s generations, their health and their environment. So, liberty is absolutely compatible with public safety, but only if we recognise and share a common and equal entitlement to these aspirations. But does that mean that we must all believe in the same thing? How then does religious freedom affect personal liberty?
© Ruth Lewis 2019