The Security of Their Liberties

I am sick sick sick of hearing about the "trade-off between civil liberties and security." Those who speak of this trade-off speak as though it were an obvious matter, and the only proper issue remaining is to assess the proper point of balance.

Such an opposition, I think, is neither obvious nor fundamental; saying that it is is nothing more than a rhetorical gimmick to shift our attention away from the magician's sleeve at precisely the moment our civil liberties vanish, perhaps never to be seen again.

In Article III of the Articles of Confederation -- version 1.0 of the U.S. Constitution -- one finds the lovely phrase "security of their liberties. By the second version, feature-creep turned this nugget into the more familiar (and inspiring) "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

"Security of their liberties" may not ring as proudly as its successor, but its ambiguity gives it a beauty all its own. On the one hand, there is the surface meaning: that liberties stand in need of protection -- indeed, that protecting liberty is the true point of "security." But that ambiguous "of" goes further; the phrase can also be read to suggest that liberties confer security.

Both ideas, of course, are all over the place in the political discourse of the Revolution and the early American republic. And good ideas never go out of style, I should hope.