Security Trumps Liberty
Public policy is almost invariably trying to balance competing interests and goals, nowhere more so than in a country as diverse as ours. But even where we have consensus, policy has to come to grips with the reality that the things we want, our policy goals, may be in conflict. Someone said not long ago that we all want Swedish services and American taxes. But beyond this, we do generally all want economic growth and a healthy environment. We do want both our civil liberties and our physical safety protected. We do want things that may be in tension and, in the crunch, in conflict.
Politics normally likes to convey that we can have it all – short-term prosperity and a healthy environment, liberty and security, Swedish services and American taxes, and public policy is often about making this as close to true as possible. One of the reasons that it’s hard to distinguish among or, for that matter, believe politicians is that political discourse just about everywhere focuses on the balancing of objectives and says little about the trade-offs that may be required. But it is in the trade-offs, in determining what trumps what, that a country defines itself and shapes its future.
Let me give some examples:
1) economic growth and the environment – This is perhaps the defining trade-off of our time, one which has been widely, eloquently and knowledgeably written about (so I won’t spend much time on it here). I have never met anyone who doesn’t prefer green and clean to black and dirty. And, with the exception of a few important voices arguing that growth itself is the problem, most of us want to see economic growth at least sufficient to ensure good jobs and quality of life for our kids and to sustain our standard of living. So politicians promise clean prosperity — because mostly that’s what we want to hear even if we don’t quite believe it — and policies try to integrate these objectives. Entirely sensible. But in the crunch, are we willing to take a bite out of growth and our pockets for the environment, say, for example, through a carbon tax or elimination of carbon subsidies and investment in clean technology? Are we willing to trade off some short-term prosperity for the longer term? Or are we more likely to take a risk with the planet, hope that the science is exaggerated or that some new technology has the answer down the line or that others will fix the problem? In Canada, it seems pretty clear that, today, economic growth trumps environment,
2) punishment and safety – Again, most people agree: wrongdoing should be punished and ensuring our safety is one of the most important jobs of government. Politicians everywhere promise what we want to hear: that they will be tough on crime and will give us safer homes and communities, and that’s what criminal justice policy tries to achieve. Mostly we have been relatively successful, relatively safe. We have been balanced, using prison more than most European countries but less than our U.S. neighbours. We have tried to divert minor property offenders and young offenders from the criminal justice system and used prisons only as a last resort — when it was judged necessary to segregate an offender from the community or when the crime was such that only the most serious of punishments would do. We tried to figure out how much punishment was just, proportional to the offence, and set that out in law, sensibly leaving significant discretion to judges to take into account mitigating and aggravating factors and risks to the community. And, knowing that the longer one is cut off from the community the harder it can be to return as a law-abiding citizen, we built a system of conditional release designed to help in successful reintegration. And for decades, crime and violence have been declining.
But as we get older and more fearful and less tolerant of crime, we want even more protection and we are even angrier at wrong-doers. And as we push the envelope, rely on prison more, reduce judicial discretion, make conditional release harder, we force consideration of the trade-offs. Experts tell us that mandatory minimum sentences and greater use of prisons will certainly increase costs without increasing safety — that, in fact, mandatory minimum sentences may actually decrease safety. That’s what the evidence suggests. That has been the result in other jurisdictions that went this way. So, in Canada, does punishment trump safety? And by removing discretion from judges, by eliminating their ability to take into account the unique circumstances of particular cases in attempting to figure out appropriate responses, are we not showing that, in Canada, our anger and will to denounce trump fairness?
3) liberty and security – The results are not all in and the reviews are mixed but we do know that some pretty awful things happened on the streets of Toronto that bring to the fore the trade-offs between security and liberty. Most democracies have some provisions for exceptional measures when security is at risk on the premise that preserving order and physical security is prerequisite to freedom and that emergencies may require some greater than normal constraints on that freedom. But “exceptional powers” are set out in law and in a healthy society are rarely invoked because they carry great political risk. A legal framework that ensures some accountability and a political culture in which liberty is prized and civil liberties vigorously defended are the best protection against abuse and the erosion of our freedoms. So the question remains, how quickly and easily will we in Canada suspend civil liberties in the name of security. And how will we hold governments accountable when the threat has passed to assure us that the threat was real, that it warranted the limits to our liberty and that the response was within the limits set out in law and consistent with our Constitution? Will we let what happened in Toronto drift into dim history without asking the question – how easily in Canada does security trump liberty?
In all the major policies from health care to innovation, it is important that, yes, we integrate objectives the best we can, but we also have to understand the trade-offs, the moral choices, what trumps what. We will have to stop asking our politicians for policies that pretend we can have it all without tough choices. And we will have to choose. Or, perhaps as a friend recently suggested, we are choosing and I just don’t like the direction. In either case, we ought to be choosing deliberately and that means only after considering what we are putting at risk.