Friday, September 13, 2013

The Balance Between Security and Liberty

We are constantly reminded of the delicate and well-considered balance that the politicians and bureaucrats are weighing when considering how best to protect us from men in caves on the other side of the world. 

I have thought about this in the past regarding the American Revolution.  Set aside the intricacies of the history, revisionist history, etc.  The colonies, with no standing army at the start of the war and no local centralized government worth mentioning, took on the most powerful empire of its time, and won.

Granted, foreign aid helped the colonies achieve victory – but this doesn’t alter the fact that, starting with none of the supposedly necessary trappings of a state to conduct a war, the colonies achieved military victory.

The colonies did not have the luxury of balancing security and liberty – the colonists had little control over the amount of “security” provided; King George and the Parliament pulled those strings.  The colonists were the recipients, not the decision-makers, regarding this balance.  Yet, they ended up achieving liberty, at least for a time.

The issues of balancing security and liberty weighed on the Congress during the Revolutionary War as well.  One of the things I am learning in reading through Jensen’s book, “The New Nation,” is the details behind the various factions in the revolution and how these factions attempted to sway the balance within this false choice.

This post is not directly a continuation of my review of Jensen’s book.  Call it a tangent, based on a couple of paragraphs from the book that shed light on the nonsense of this so-called choice between security and liberty.

The main actors during the revolution can be spilt into two groups: on the one hand were the nationalists – popularly but erroneously labeled the Federalists.  The nationalists wanted a strong and coercive central government, both during the war and after.  They liked what Britain had in terms of coercive power; they just wanted that coercive power to be local and their own.

On the other hand were the Federalists – popularly but erroneously labeled the anti-Federalists.  The Federalists wanted a confederation of states, with little centralized power.

During the early years of the war the Federalists held power in Congress.  The Federalists resisted every attempt at centralizing coercive political power.  The nationalists, as the war dragged on and the outcome seemed more in doubt, began to take control.  For the period 1781 to 1783, the nationalists had control of Congress.

The nationalists proposed all sorts of measures to centralize power and secure a permanent revenue stream to the Congress.  I will cover the details in a separate post; suffice it to say here, they secured virtually none of their proposals, and those that they did secure were implemented almost at the same time that the war was over, with the Battle of Yorktown. 

In other words, even the centralizing “victories” for the nationalists came too late to have any influence on the outcome of the war.  The colonists won the war, without a strong central government and without a central government’s ability to coerce tax revenue.

Keep in mind, when the potential outcome of the war was at its darkest, the states and the Congress chose liberty over so-called security every time until the nationalist take-over in 1781.  Their feeling was: what is the point of victory if we have to become that which we are fighting in order to achieve it?  (There is a thought.)

With that as background, I offer Jensen, who makes the point far better than I do:

The nationalists had realized ever since the battle of Yorktown that the end of the war would mean an end of their greatest hope for constitutional revolution.  Their arguments for centralization and the supposed efficiency and economy that would result depended heavily on the continuation of the war, and they knew it. (Page 66)

The nationalists who ruled Congress from 1781 to 1783 had not achieved their ends.  Their constitutional theories, their proposed amendments, and even the desperate hope of actual military revolt had all been shattered by the winning of independence itself, without the adoption of any of the measures which they had insisted were indispensable for the winning of it.  In a way, they had discredited Congress among the people by their insistence on gathering power to it.  The people, so far as they had fought for independence, had not fought for the independence of a vague entity known as the United States, but for the independence of their own particular states. (Page 83, emphasis added)

The nationalists were not able to implement their measures before the victorious end of the war – measures that they insisted were necessary in order to win the war. 

There was no trade-off between security and liberty.  The states, and to a great extent the people, held liberty as paramount and at the same time achieved security against the most powerful military on earth of the time.

A lesson that should not be lost. 

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