Fair Questions: What sort of liberty is that?

The Question

During a recent conversation regarding the NSA’s collection of metadata from phone records,  I expressed confusion as to why people were surprised by it.  To my understanding, this has been legal for years, and I made an offhand comment about how we had lost that liberty a long time ago.

One of my conservative friends asked the question, “What sort of liberty is that?”  I suspect that for a lot of people, this would be a difficult question to answer.  After all, the average person probably doesn’t really think of not having the government collecting all of their phone records as a liberty.

The Answer

Fortunately, I do have an answer to that question.  Prior to the passage of the legislation allowing the data to be collected, the private citizen was at liberty to decide whether anyone other than themselves and the company providing the telecommunications service were allowed to have access to their phone records.

This liberty was ceded to the state, ostensibly to improve our collective security.  The idea behind this sort of move is to trade a little nonessential liberty for safety, which is a perfectly understandable motivation and certainly not so dramatic a loss of liberty as making the press an apparatus of the state or having a state religion would be.  Far be it from me to suggest that the liberty to decide who has access to your phone records is the most important liberty one can retain.


Because many folks tend to make a lot of very wrong assumptions about my motivations for being concerned about liberty, keep in mind the following.

I rarely speak on the telephone, and when I do the conversations are generally quite banal, so I have no particularly strong emotional attachment to this liberty.

I am not an anarchist or a libertarian for whom individual liberty is the highest consideration in the political sphere.  On the contrary, my highest concerns are virtue and survival.

I am concerned about the erosion of personal liberty primarily because it impacts both virtue and survival.  It impacts virtue in the sense that liberty is necessary for virtue.  We cannot practice virtue unless we have a genuine option to do so, and we cannot be held fully accountable for a lack of virtue if we are not able to choose freely.  For example, I could be forced at gunpoint along with millions of other people to give to a particular charity, but this would be no virtuous act on my part because of its involuntary character.  In the same way, I could be forced along with millions of other people to relinquish my control over who gets to access my phone records.  If I were willing to do so because I genuinely thought it might help catch a terrorist, then this might be virtuous.  As it turns out, I am quite certain that none of my phone records would help catch a terrorist, and so I am unwilling and it is not virtuous.

The erosion of liberty impacts survival by habituating us to having someone else being responsible for our safety.  The consequence of this is that we grow less and less capable of caring for our own safety, a consequence which is already very much in evidence today.  Just look at the number of people who refuse to learn to use a firearm and carry a firearm even where it would be prudent to do so.  Coddling does few favors to children and real harm to adults when the rubber hits the road.

Bottom Line

In the end, the issue of collecting metadata by itself is small potatoes.  But every little potato does count, and the cumulative effective of removing a small potato here and a small potato there over many decades can be quite significant.  The conservative should be concerned about this issue as well, because liberty and personal responsibility are inextricably linked, and the consequences of decreasing personal responsibility are pretty dire when we look at the abuse of our welfare system by some of the populace.

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