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The Meaning of Security

September 20, 2004

Tags Big GovernmentWar and Foreign PolicyPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

Let's think about the word security, which has been in the news lately because the Bush administration seeks a major shift in the way funds are spent in Iraq. It wants $3 billion moved from spending on reconstruction to spending on "security." There's a political science lesson in that usage.

The reason for the shift, of course, is the obvious unraveling of anything resembling civilization in Iraq: bombings, killings, mini-wars are everywhere. Whole regions of Iraq are lost to US control, and not even Baghdad is holding. Of the $18 billion congress allocated for public works, the Bush administration argues that it makes sense to divert some to bring a measure of public stability to the country.

But what are we really talking about when we say "security"? It is money taken from you and me to be spent to force the Iraqi population to submit to the puppet government that rules only because of the US. It is money to pay for more police, weapons, bullets, bombs, spying, arresting, torturing, jailing, maiming, and killing.

The theory is that more fear and more fear-inspiring bloodshed will tame the guerrillas and stop them from plotting more bombings, shootings, killings. The money will buy compliance, and pay the bills of those who use force to try to bring it about. Many people would be happy for an end to violence, to be sure, but the primary purpose is the protection of the state from rebels.  

Submission and compliance: that is what is meant by the term security in the state's lexicon. It is an interesting choice of words. Its use in public life dates at least to the advent of Social Security, a tax scheme that promises to put you on welfare in your old age in exchange for paying 14 percent of your income to support current retirees who constitute the wealthiest demographic slice of the American population. Even in this case, the term security meant compliance, as shown by the tendency of recipients to back ever more redistribution.

Now we have the Department of Homeland Security, a gargantuan agency that administers foreign and domestic spying, sends hither swarms of agents to harass us at airports, conduct drills in the event that the government decides that martial law is the only option, and generally suppress any and all signs of insurrection wherever they might appear. Here too the term security means submission, control, compliance, obedience, and stability for the state.

Who is this security trying to secure? We are told it is for our own benefit. It is government that makes us secure from terrible threats. And yet, if we look closely, we can see that the main beneficiary of security is the state itself.

We all understand this intuitively. Let's say you know that someone is after you—an ex-spouse, for example—and threatens your very life. Would you call the Department of Homeland Security and expect a response? No, the DHS is there to protect the state, as evidenced by the comparatively energetic response that a threat to the president's life would elicit.

Of course, there is a need and demand for authentic security. We all seek it. We lock our doors, deter criminals with alarms, arm ourselves in case the alarms don’t do it, prepare for the worst in the case of natural disaster, save for the future, and construct our professional lives in ways that minimize the chance of disadvantageous turns of events. This is what security means to us in the real world.

It is not unexpected that the state would seek the same thing: security not for us but for itself and its employees. The state has a special reason to desire security: its agents are always a minority of the population, funded by eating out their substance, and its rule is always vulnerable. The more control it seeks over a population, the more its agents are wise to watch their backs.

Where does that leave the rest of us in our demand for security? In the world of ideas, a vigorous debate is taking place about the extent to which private enterprise is capable of providing security, not only as a supplement but as a full replacement for state-provided security.

Advocates of fully privatized security point out that in the real world, most of the security we enjoy is purchased in the private sector. Vast networks of food distribution protect against starvation, private agents guard our homes, insurance companies provide compensation in the event of unexpected misfortune, and the locks and guns and gated communities provided by private enterprise do the bulk of work for our security in the real world.

In our community, we spent days preparing for what was expected to be the terrible hurricane Ivan. It didn't do much damage here, but in all the preparations, this much is clear: no one counted on the government to do anything to protect us. And no one counts on the government to do any reconstruction either. We depend entirely on our own efforts, while post-disaster clean up would have been done entirely by private contract.

The message of this school of thought is that liberty and security (real security) are not opposites such that one must choose between them. They go together. Liberty is the essence of the free enterprise system that provides for all our material needs, that helps us overcome the uncertainties and contingencies of life.

As for the public agencies, how do they act in a crisis? They are reduced to sending out warnings to "stay alert" and otherwise blowing big alarms as if no one can look outside their windows, listen to the radio, or check the web. This is pretty much all Homeland Security does with its laughable system of color-coded alerts. They also order us to leave our homes, search us, and threaten us with arrest if we protest.

The truth is that government has less ability to protect us in an emergency than we have to protect ourselves. And despite all the propaganda you hear about brave public workers, the same was true during 9-11. The bottom line is that it represented the greatest failure of state security in a generation. That is the real lesson from that day.

Iraq too demonstrates a lesson concerning public and private security. When it is politically feasible, the big mucks in Iraq choose to use private security firms to protect themselves. This was the major undertaking of its mercenaries when the US civilian government was running matters. How ironic that even the state chooses private contractors when it can. When it seeks genuine security, it too buys it on the free market.

Americans have something in common with Iraqis: experience has told us that when the government promises to bring us security, it means only that it wants more control over our lives so that the state can enjoy longevity and peace at our expense. The real choice isn't between liberty and security; it is between our security and the state's.


Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute and editor of Lewrockwell.com   . rockwell@mises.org Post comments on the blog.

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