The national prime question of our time

America is having a great debate with itself at this moment about what I call the prime question of our time: “Which is more precious - liberty or security?” Founder Benjamin Franklin warned that trading liberty for safety is likely to get you neither.

We addressed this debate in two recent polls of our online audience with these two questions taken a week apart: “What do you think about the federal government accessing the cell phone records of over 100 million Americans?” and, “How do you feel about companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Verizon and others giving the government access to their servers and your private digital information?”

Nine out of ten and eight of ten of our respondents, respectively, said essentially that they are unwilling to make the trade Franklin warned us about. Our audience seemed to be less polarized than the political class and talking heads.

It’s one thing to be inconvenienced in an airport in the name of security, which experience is measured in a matter of minutes. But it’s something else when the government says it wants to have the unfettered ability to get all up in our business 24/7.

It seems to me that the issue for most Americans is not so much whether the government can make good use of this information for national security purposes - most of us wouldn’t argue about how handy such a database could be. But government isn’t an abstract idea in this case - it’s real people with names we know. And when it’s revealed that those same people, or at least people under their influence, have behaved in a political way with one aspect of our personal lives and information, and then ask to be given more access in the name of national security, well that’s starting to move the needle on our creepy dial.

To me, this issue is akin to the torture debate. The official policy of the U.S. government is that we don’t torture people to get information. We’ve even gone so far now to say we won’t torture a subject even if we know he has information that could prevent an imminent threat to our country. By making that decision we’re essentially saying that we will just have to work harder and smarter in other ways that conform more closely with our values.

So, if the government finds itself needing information that may be bound up in our collective private information, let’s apply the torture standard. Indiscriminate mass data collection of the private information of citizens by the government does not conform to the values that we hold dear and that are given to us as rights by the 4th amendment of our Constitution. Consequently, Mr. President (Bush, Obama, or whomever), you’re just going to have to work harder and smarter to keep us safe. Because that’s your job and no one ever said it was going to be easy.


Click the link below to listen to my latest segment from The Small Business Advocate Show® about this issue. Benjamin Franklin warned that trading liberty for security will get you neither.

Liberty or security: The national debate question of our lifetime

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