Revisiting the “freedom versus security” dilemma before revising the Constitution

by Dimitris Christopoulos, Associate Professor – Panteion University of Social & Political Science (Athens GR), Vice President of the International Federation for Human Rights

The dilemma between freedom and security is regularly raised in debates among human rights defenders and activists. This perceived dilemma implies that being secure means giving up liberty: we accept surveillance – we give up our freedom – because we believe that this will protect our safety. Faced with the upcoming constitutional revision human rights defenders in Greece have to make choices which perhaps entail revisiting this dilemma.
Notwithstanding the fact that freedom and security can potentially come into conflict, it is extremely simplistic to present things this way. Security does not only mean police. Security means safe roads, functioning kindergartens, safe hospitals, proper schooling and so on. And security suffers in times of crisis and erosion of the state’s social function. Security has a social dimension which is hidden by one-dimensional representations of security as a barrier to freedom.
Safety can be a barrier to liberty, but freedom is unthinkable without security. If one is not safe, (s)he cannot be free. These things go without saying.
Until recently, the general expectation was that in the face of the ‘security v. freedom’ dilemma, the human rights movement would opt for freedom, leaving an empty space for neo-conservatism to take the lead on ‘security’. This situation brought us to a paradoxical situation, with the anti-human rights political discourse monopolizing ‘security’ and turning the concept into a rallying call to repress dissent among the citizenry. The paradox becomes more acute if we consider not only the many human rights violations that occur due to the securitization of politics, but also how unsafe and how precarious our lives become due to the monopolization of ‘security’ by neo-conservativism.
Bentham was the first post-revolutionary thinker to attempt the complete removal of liberty from the legal domain. According to his thinking, what remains of it should be legally considered as a branch of ‘security’, so as to avoid confusion. In his conception, liberty is only understood as a privacy right, as a shield against intrusion and interference by other people or by holders of authority. Liberty can be secured only where ‘real’ rights are established through a legal system. To deliver such a system, Bentham proposes the use of the utility principle rather than ‘natural rights’ to resolve conflicts. The utility or interest of an individual are the basic ingredients of Bentham’s societal calculus.
“Some persons”, Bentham says, “may be surprised to find that ‘Liberty’ is not ranked among the principal objects of the law”, but “we must regard it as a branch of ‘Security’ to avoid confusion”. “Personal liberty is security against a certain class of wrongs which affects the person; while what is called political liberty is also a branch of security – security against injustice at the hands of the persons entrusted with government” (Principles of the Civil Code, Part I, Ch. 2).
I am not arguing that Bentham – or indeed the whole of utilitarian thought – offer good solutions for the entire range of problems we face today. I argue, instead, that is it worth considering some of their arguments, and I believe that the aforementioned argument provokes important reflection.
In the face of the ‘security v. freedom’ dilemma, we need to semantically readdress the question. It is not a question of ‘either-or’ but rather a matter of ‘and’. Security is the only possible condition of our liberty. If we are not safe we cannot be free. So, the correct approach for us would be to say ‘we are for security but against those who, in the name of protecting it, make the world less secure’.
It is time to reappropriate some of these good concepts, instead of allowing our political opponents to misappropriate them.

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