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A Libertarian Message From the Department of Homeland Security

May 9, 2006

A fascinating report by Jeff Porten in TidBITS on the 16th Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference. An amusing bit comes with his description of a speech given by Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security:

He opened his speech by asking how many audience members considered themselves to be libertarians; he then asked how many people had personally stored 72 hours' worth of food, water, and battery power to maintain themselves in case of emergency. He continued, "Who are you counting on to save you? We all don't like the government until we need them." Later, he said he should have amended this list to include a personal firearm.

He stated that it's not usually the government who saves you in a catastrophe, and spoke highly of residents of Houston, Texas who self-evacuated after having seen what happened to the people who stayed behind in New Orleans. The role of the government was to rescue the people who couldn't do so themselves, and Baker personally advocated the use of individual solutions and non-governmental organizations.

Coming as this was from someone with a major leadership role in homeland security, his message was poorly received by much of the crowd. Post-speech discussion debated whether Baker had seen the news reports of Houston evacuees stranded on the roads leaving town, and if he expected individuals and nonprofits to build their own infrastructure. The overall impression his speech gave is that in the event of a disaster, we should expect to be on our own for a while; I don't think that this is the general impression that DHS attempts to convey.

What I find so amusing by this account, besides someone from the DHS frankly saying you shouldn't count on the government, is the way the "libertarian" audience seemed quite shocked by the idea that they should take care of themselves in a crisis. The rest of the piece shows similar confusion from these so-called libertarians. The author of the piece may have given away the game here: "The question comes down to how each of us defines the parameters for important yet vague notions like 'freedom' and 'privacy.'"

Libertarians should not find "freedom" and "privacy" such vague notions. At this conference with many advocates for civil liberties I'm afraid we have the common case of folks with libertarian instincts sailing without a rudder. The rudder they need is property. Ludwig von Mises wrote that "The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production". With a relentless focus on private property these well-meaning advocates of freedom and privacy might find that much confusion about privacy in relation to corporations vs. governments and how technology can be a liberating force rather than an Orwellian one would clear up. And better strategies for achieving their goals would also present themselves.

In the same passage, Mises goes on to say that "All the other demands of liberalism result from this fundamental demand [for private property]." Those who focus on some of these other demands without a firm grounding in the fundamental demand are doomed to intellectual and strategic confusion.

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