Sunday, October 09, 2005

Civil Liberties Are Not a Religion

That's the last point made by Richard Posner in his debate with colleague Geoff Stone. Last week they were supposed to debate the legitimacy of the Patriot Act and whether it should be reinstated in its current form. Instead the debate diverged into an argument about the veracity of balancing civil liberties against national security. While both parties agreed that balancing is needed, Stone was less willing to balance, chalking up his belief to a fear of law enforcement disingenuousness when faced with the opportunity to expand its ability to defend Americans.

There were some interesting sub-debates. One concerned the ACLU. Posner took it to task for refusing to acknowledge security concerns. I've always argued that groups like the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc. ignore security concerns. Well, maybe ignore is a strong word, but the certainly allow civil liberties to dwarf security concerns.

Historically law professors (or professors in general) have been much more willing to defend the rights of the individual over the rights of the collective (which is what the liberty vs. security debate boils down to). Rationally such a position is untenable if the person's goal is to protect human life. But the position might make sense for at least two reasons.

First, professors and political groups are not responsible for protecting millions of citizens. In other words, they have no one to answer to when they overemphasized a supposed threat to liberty and caused a breach in security. So they can risk being wrong without any cost.

Second, people are often more willing to sympathize with an identifiable victim as opposed to a faceless majority. They therefore support the person suffering a cognizable harm, even though rationally they should support the greatest measure to protecting life.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but it's late and time for sleep.

No comments: