Teeter-totter

Security goes up, freedom goes down

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002

It's permissible in this context, I think, to tell you that when I was 4, my sister-age 6-weighed more than I did. She was introducing me to the teeter-totter on the playground across the street from our house. And she was smart enough to know that because she weighed more than I did, she would have to sit closer to the middle, and I'd have to sit precariously close to the end, if we were to make the thing work.

Americans are doing the same thing right now trying to balance their freedom, on the one hand, and their security, on the other. The challenge for adults to bring freedom and security into some sort of livable equilibrium is as tricky as a teeter-totter is for kids.

For on a teeter-totter, when one partner is up, the other partner is always down. Teeter-totters don't bend in the middle to let both frightened adventurers keep their feet on the ground. And neither does the equation in public affairs between freedom and security. To be perfectly secure, you always have to give up a little freedom. Or to be perfectly free, you always have to forfeit some security. It's the way God has constructed things.

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So now we are immersed in a multifaceted public debate over airport security measures, military tribunals, national identification cards-and a hundred other balancing acts between our security and our freedom. In Florida, a devout Islamic woman is arguing seriously that her religious liberty means she shouldn't have to be photographed without her veil for her driver's license. So how does the public respond: Security or freedom?

Right now, the public prefers security. We usually do in times when our comfort has been shattered and our tranquility threatened. At such periods, liberty and freedom take on distantly wispy and abstractly theoretical characteristics, and we all become susceptible to trading them in for the promise of the immediate certainty that we can reach out and touch and feel.

Even before 9/11, we might have been helpfully instructed on this topic through our experiences with the last decade's tug-of-war over health care.

Access to quality care, along with the ability to pay for such care, is naturally everybody's goal. So how much is such security worth-security that you can treat the infirmities and diseases that come your way, and security that you can handle the economic impact? And just how much freedom are you willing to give up in the process?

No matter who begins to extend such guarantees, there will be a cost in freedom. Just ask anyone who thought a few years ago that the guarantees of an HMO were a good bargain-only to discover that the freedom to choose your own doctor had just disappeared. Or ask the typical family who, in exchange for the certainty that all medical bills will be covered, has lost forever even potential freedom from medical bills-because even a totally healthy family now pays $5,000-10,000 annually for insurance coverage. Or look at the increasing pace with which insurance providers are withdrawing from the scene because of the high level of regulation by both federal and state governments.

Hello, certainty; goodbye, freedom.

But here's always the big question: Who's going to guarantee that certainty? Who has enough wisdom and enough authority over all the variables in life to come alongside you and say convincingly: "Leave it to me. You've got nothing to worry about. Everything's under control."

The trend, of course, over the last 140 years (and especially over the last 70) has been to suppose that the federal government has both the wisdom and the power to stand behind such guarantees. That's why, when we fret about our ability to provide for our old-age needs, we ask Uncle Sam to guarantee a pittance through Social Security in exchange for the freedom we would otherwise enjoy to earn something much more substantial. Even when we acknowledge by overwhelming majorities (as polls regularly suggest we do) that this so-called "security" is anything but secure, we're also reluctant to give it up. Even when Uncle Sam proves he has neither the omniscience nor the omnipotence to do something so grand, we keep blindly hoping for the best.

So the inclination is powerful as well, as we sort through our national options in the construction of our "homeland defense," to load up on security and to go light on freedom. Nor is it always automatically wrong in particular circumstances to do so.

What is wrong is to forget how fragile the balance is-and to give in to the tendency, as we have too regularly in America, to move everything to Uncle Sam's end of the teeter-totter.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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