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Freedom and Security in America and around the World

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THE SHOCKING AND tragic events of September 11, 2001, have affected not only the United States but the rest of the world as well. This impact, however, is not limited to an increased awareness of the dangers from networks of international terrorists. Nor is it limited to a heightened awareness of the global reach of the U.S. government and its technological capabilities in response to this terrorist attack.

It has also made many people once more think about the relationship and connection between freedom and security. People expect their government, at the very least, to protect them from violent attacks against their person and their property. In 1830, the English free-market economist William Huskisson observed, “Security of persons and to property is the ultimate object and end of the institution of government.” This, he said, “is the only good reason that can ultimately be assigned for keeping up civil and military establishments.” Neither individual freedom nor society can long exist if men do not believe their lives and their possessions are safe from banditry and plunder.

Yet throughout history that same institution of government has been the greatest threat to men’s freedom and property. Political scientist R.J. Rummel has devoted most of his scholarly career to documenting mass murders committed by political authorities around the world in the 20th century. In his 1994 volume Death by Government, he summarized his research with the conservative estimate that during the previous 100 years, governments had killed for various political and ideological reasons at least 170 million unarmed civilians — men, women, and children. That would be equal to the mass execution of almost the entire populations of the United Kingdom, France, and Italy.

At the same time, governments have functioned as the agency for legalized plunder in the service of those in political power and of the spider’s web of special-interest groups that manipulate political processes for their own purposes in virtually every country around the globe. Domestic regulations on commerce, industry, and agriculture; international trade barriers; income redistribution programs; wage and price controls; monetary and price inflation; and preferential policies for the benefit of various racial, gender, or social groups in society serve as the methods for the coercive transferring of the income and wealth from some in society to other more politically privileged and favored groups.

The greatest threat to liberty

Governments are also the single greatest threat to people’s basic civil liberties — freedom of speech and the press; freedom of religion and peaceful voluntary association; the writ of habeas corpus; an impartial trial by jury; and the individual’s security in his person, property, and privacy from unjustifiable search and seizure. These hard-won freedoms have constantly been threatened by governments that have imprisoned and tortured people; abolished or abridged freedoms of speech, the press, and peaceful assembly and association; violated people’s homes and possessions; and intruded into their private and personal, noncriminal affairs through wiretapping and other electronic methods of listening and eavesdropping into residences and places of work.

No group of bandits or thieves, no private network of terrorists — no matter how violent or destructive — has had the negative impact on freedom and security that governments have had throughout the ages, and especially during our own time.

Without in any way meaning to be insensitive or callous about the horrible events that occurred in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, the approximately 2,900 people killed in the terrorist attacks were far fewer in number than those killed in the United States in the year 2000 in various accidental circumstances: automobile accidents, 43,000; falling down, 16,200; accidental poisoning, 11,700; drowning, 3,900; fires or burns, 3,600; ingestion of food or objects, 3,400.

Yet it is because of these fewer than 3,000 tragic deaths that the United States has undertaken a large military engagement in Afghanistan, including a massive bombing campaign that has cost the lives of at least several hundred and perhaps thousands of innocent civilians and destroyed even more of an already shattered land. And the U.S. government has declared its intention to undertake additional military steps in a variety of countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the name of a global war on terrorism.

At the same time, it has created a new Office of Homeland Security within the United States, and the United States Congress has passed legislation that gives the federal government far more power and authority to intrude into the personal and private affairs of the citizenry.

The government arrested more than 1,000 noncitizen residents of the United States, most of Middle Eastern ethnic background, and has held them without filing charges against them. It used its regulatory authority over television broadcasting to influence the form and the content of the news reporting from Afghanistan and about the fighting there. It has frozen the financial assets and accounts of numerous private organizations and charities accused of supporting or subsidizing terrorist groups, but without any public evidence or judicial hearing to legally demonstrate the validity of the accusations.

The U.S. government has also threatened other nations around the world with economic sanctions and restrictions on trade with the United States unless the governments of those nations also freeze or seize the financial assets and accounts of suspected private organizations. They are also expected to collaborate with the United States in fighting and repressing any group or organization that Washington declares to be “terrorist” in nature and purpose.

President Bush stated this very clearly in his state of the Union address on January 29, 2002, when he said that if other nations appear to be “timid in the face of terror” in the eyes of the United States, “make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will.” With that declaration, the American government laid down its intention to police the world and use its financial muscle and military power to cross any border, shoot at any suspects and either capture or kill them, and even overthrow governments in foreign lands if they are viewed as threats to U.S. government-defined security.

International assaults on liberty

At the same time, in the name of a U.S.-declared international terrorist crisis, a variety of non-democratic governments in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have used the current “security crisis” as an opportunity to justify and reinforce their own repressive policies against domestic opponents and dissidents. Political authorities and opposition groups in countries such as Yemen and Somalia have declared their domestic rivals to be part of the international terrorist conspiracy in attempts to obtain U.S. government financial and military help to defeat and destroy their local competitors for power and control. And it is certainly comforting to know that Fidel Castro has joined the international war on terrorism by promising to imprison and punish anyone who tries to overthrow his communist regime. Equally comforting is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s commitment to this antiterrorist war expressed in his intention to use any amount of force necessary in the continuing attempt to crush the independence movement of the Chechens in southern Russia. Under the fear and concern of terrorist attacks, even traditional democratic regimes in France, Germany, and Great Britain have either already passed or proposed legislation that would seriously curtail the civil liberties and privacy of their own citizens. Added to these countries’ already intrusive and excessive interventionist-welfare state will now be an enlarged surveillance state to track the movements of their own citizens and all visitors. Huskisson had argued,

The people will take sufficient care of their own happiness, if they enjoy full security themselves and remain free from all constraints that are not absolutely necessary for the security of the persons and property of other parties.

Yet under the cover of a terrorist-caused national security threat, the U.S. government is to further intrude into the lives and choices of the American people. This goes beyond the additional $38 billion being asked by President Bush for his new Office of Homeland Security.

Collectivism versus liberty

In his state of the Union address, the president declared that because of the tragic events of September 11, Americans should now be conscious of a new collectivist responsibility “with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history.” He left unanswered the question, Who is to determine what “history” demands of any one of us? The president must believe that he and its advisors have some special source of knowledge about what “history” wants that any critics of the administration’s policies would lack.

In the free society, every individual determines for himself what will give him happiness and each individual, guided by his ethical philosophy and moral beliefs, decides what responsibilities and obligations he may owe to some of his fellow men. But the president of the United States has now informed every one of us that we owe 4,000 hours, or two years of our life, to providing “service to your neighbors and your nation.”

And he even knows the channels through which this “service” should properly be provided: the USA Freedom Corps, Ameri-Corps, and Senior Corps. He even knows how many of us should be involved, having set a target of 200,000 Americans, along with a doubling of the Peace Corps from 7,000 to 14,000 over a five-year period.

And the president knows on what project those Peace Corps participants are to focus their time: “a new effort to encourage development and education and opportunity in the Islamic world.” No one in the Bush administration seems to have asked whether the people in predominantly Islamic parts of the world desire or view themselves as needing to be reeducated and “developed” by Peace Corps missionaries for the “American Way.”

Furthermore, the president said that these collectivist “obligations” include more federal involvement in education, federal government subsidies of medical drug prescriptions for the elderly, a renewed federal guarantee of Social Security, a government-sponsored patients’ bill of rights, government subsidies for uninsured workers to purchase health coverage, and more government-assisted home ownership for minority groups in America.

With U.S. government officials threatening to reach around the world in the name of America’s “national security” and to impose any degree of force to destroy whomever they classify as terrorist enemies, the rest of the world is now more insecure and at greater risk than at any recent time. Fail to follow Washington’s lead and implicit foreign-policy orders in this regard and your freedom, property, and safety are no longer ensured in any country in the world.

Here at home, if you fail to accept your “obligations” — as that term is defined by the federal government — to your “nation” and to “history,” you might find yourself viewed as “un-American” and out of step with our national mission, as President Bush expressed it — the “great opportunity during this time of war to lead the world toward the value that will bring lasting peace.” After all, he added, it is only leading the world to what is “right and true,” and Americans must be willing to give up their freedom to establish these foreign and homeland security designs of their government.

Toward the end of his address, the president referred to our time as “a decisive decade in the history of liberty.” He is right. But the importance of this moment in time is that it is the government’s pursuit of a self-proclaimed “security” that is the greatest threat to our remaining freedom.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).