Thursday, May 18, 2006

Unknown Unknowns

As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.
— D.H. Rumsfeld, Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Congratulations to Eric Zorn for provoking some very thoughtful commentary on Ben Franklin's oft-[mis]quoted adage:
Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
EZ asks:
What are our essential liberties? How significant -- how big, how permanent -- does a social benefit have to be in order to justify the curtailment of even inessential liberties?
As most of his commentators recognize, the answer for each person is likely somewhat different because each individual engages in his or her own private balancing test, i.e. "Is the safety gained worth the liberty sacrificed?" Although we would disagree on particular instances, nevertheless, I believe that the vast majority of us would agree that ideally the amount of Liberty gained is offset by no less than a proportional gain in Safety.

In this idealized version of the proportional balancing implicit in Franklin's quote, when we sacrifice "just a little Liberty" we gain at least "just a little Safety", and when we surrender "a heck of a lot of Liberty" we are rewarded with nothing less than "a heck of a lot of Safety." But to intelligently undertake this Franklin balancing, one must know -- or have a reasonable idea of -- the how much Liberty and Safety are at issue.

Unfortunately, we are not living in an ideal universe.

Due to the Bush administration's fetishistic obsession with secrecy, the American people are unable to determine how much Liberty we are surrendering or how much Safety we are gaining. Naturally, there will always be a degree of uncertainty to the value of 'S' -- we do not know precisely how much safer any particular Liberty sacrifice makes us as individuals or as a nation. But we can make certain logical inferences when we understand the nature of the Liberty sacrifice.

Consider metal detectors at airports. We know that the Liberty sacrifice of requiring Americans to pass through a metal detector before boarding a plane rewards us with the Safety that comes with the increased detection of dangerous metal objects. And for most of us that passes the Franklin balancing test. Generally, the same holds true for requiring us to taking our shoes off and to show photo IDs.

But when the Bush administration takes our Liberties in secret, we have no way of determining if the amount of Safety gained justifies it. In the case of the NSA phone records collection, until USA Today broke the story, Americans didn't even know that they had made a Liberty sacrifice, much less had the opportunity to balance it against perceived gains in Safety. And this is true for any other Liberties that the Bush administration is currently, secretly infringing upon.

Even if one is willing to blindly accept that the privacy Liberty surrendered to NSA phone records collection is probably justified by the unknown amount of Safety gained, such blind faith will only carry one so far. What if the NSA was recording the content of every phone call and e-mail of every United States? What Safety gain would be necessary to justify that Liberty sacrifice? Would Safety gain justify it? No matter what your answer, shouldn't the American people be allowed to be part of that Liberty for Safety balancing determination?

But when the Bush White House covertly sacrifices Americans' Liberties in exchange for an unknown amount of Safety, they are prohibiting American citizens from participating in a knowing, rational Franklin balancing determination. And such knowledge and participation are essential to self-rule in a democratic republic by, for and of the people.

In his Politics, Aristotle said, "The defining principle of Democracy is Liberty, one aspect of which is having a share in ruling." I fear that, in exchange for an unknown -- and perhaps illusory -- amount of Safety, we are blindly sacrificing a Liberty essential to our democracy -- our "share in ruling."


Greg said...

Well said. Even the dittomonkeys couldn't argue with what you've written.

Rob said...

I agree. It's frustrating to me when discussions about Bush administration conduct devolve into airy abstraction--essential liberties, inessential liberties, etc.--when what's clearly at issue is something much more concrete and specific: the powers of this president.

I don't hear any liberals (or disgruntled conservatives) saying that NO ONE should EVER eavesdrop, data-mine, or otherwise infringe on liberty in the name of security. We're talking about a specific case here: the actions of an administration with consistent, across-the-board bad judgment.


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