The Politics and Philosophy of National Security

This essay explains why we’re all living in failed Hobbesian states:

What do these three implications—states have a great deal of freedom to determine what threatens a people and how to respond to those threats, and in making those determinations, they are influenced by the interests and ideologies of their primary constituencies; states have strong incentives and have been given strong justifications for exaggerating threats; and while states aspire, rhetorically, to a unity of will and judgment, they seldom achieve it in practice—tell us about the relationship between security and freedom? What light do they shed on the question of why security is such a potent argument for the suppression of rights and liberties?

Security is an ideal language for suppressing rights because it combines a universality and neutrality in rhetoric with a particularity and partiality in practice. Security is a good that everyone needs, and, we assume, that everyone needs in the same way and to the same degree. It is “the most vital of all interests,” John Stuart Mill wrote, which no one can “possibly do without.” Though Mill was referring here to the security of persons rather than of nations or states, his argument about personal security is often extended to nations and states, which are conceived to be persons writ large.

Unlike other values—say justice or equality—the need for and definition of security is not supposed to be dependent upon our beliefs or other interests and it is not supposed to favor any one set of beliefs or interests. It is the necessary condition for the pursuit of any belief or interest, regardless of who holds that belief or has that interest. It is a good, as I’ve said, that is universal and neutral. That’s the theory.

The reality, as we have seen, is altogether different. The practice of security involves a state that is rife with diverse and competing ideologies and interests, and these ideologies and interests fundamentally help determine whether threats become a focus of attention, and how they are perceived and mobilized against. The provision of security requires resources, which are not limitless. They must be distributed according to some calculus, which, like the distribution calculus of any other resource (say income or education), will reflect controversial and contested assumption about justice and will be the subject of debate. National security is as political as Social Security, and just as we argue about the latter, so do we argue about the former.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 6:49 AM16 Comments


Scott January 10, 2013 7:59 AM

“Security is an ideal language for suppressing rights…”

I think that just about says it all. The Constitution has been raped and pillaged ad nausuem for 12 years, all under the guise of keeping the country secure. In reality, we are no more secure today than we were on September 11. It’s smoke, mirrors, theater and the millions of sheeples that make up America are being willingly led to slaughter.

Whomever January 10, 2013 9:39 AM

North Korea is a great example of a nation which has gone to the very extreme of focusing everything on war to the very point that they do not have enough food for their people. Decade after decade.

Like the US, they are not really at war with anyone. According to their beliefs, they were at war with Japan and they defeated Japan. South Korea invaded them and desolated their land, according to their beliefs, and they were responsible for defeating SK, the US, and other UN nations. It was not they who invaded SK, it was not the Allies who defeated Japan, and it was not the Chinese who pushed back the US, SK, and the UN. It was North Korea who did all of this. Kim Sung-Il.

They believe, or have believed they are the envy of the world. The leading nation.

North Koreans have no choice but to belief these stories. They are completely kept from the outside world through a wide variety of means.

They do not know of anything better, not truth on these key subjects, not a better way of life.

The US and other nations have similar delusions. And operate under similar constraints.

I think it is all about what they are looking to for their protection. How they believe they can protect themselves. Who will protect them.

NK looks to their Leader (it is always some “Leader”), to technology, to the “brilliancy” of “socialism”. The US has similar beliefs.

God does not have anything to do with it.

They interviewed him, and they decided they would go with other options.

Fredrik January 10, 2013 12:16 PM

I don’t entirely agree with the essay; we do need security, but the state misinterprets its own security as the security of its citizens, and in doing so becomes a security threat itself.

MingoV January 10, 2013 4:48 PM

We generally think of security as protection from bad actors. Another type of security is protection from communicable diseases. Public health departments were established to protect us from such threats. Unfortunately, it turns out that public health departments are just as likely to misuse their powers as the TSA or DEA.

In NYC, for example, all blood glucose results must be reported to the public health department so they ensure that diabetics are being treated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a stupid guideline that newborns be vaccinated against hepatitis B (a disease transmitted by injection of infectious blood or by frequent sexual contact with a carrier). Almost every state public health department requires these vaccinations even though newborn babies cannot make antibodies.

The evidence in the USA is that almost every government agency that provides some type of security gets bigger, less focused, and stupider over time.

gregorylent January 10, 2013 5:41 PM

going further ..

our entire economy and social structure is based in fear

this will change this century as humans realize the creative power of their own consciousness

TomTrottier January 11, 2013 12:49 PM

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Benjamin Franklin, “Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor”, November 11, 1755; as cited in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 6, p. 242, Leonard W. Labaree, ed. (1963)

We have more to fear from Wall street than Arabia.

John January 11, 2013 8:33 PM

I’m currently a medical student, this guy reminds me a little like the annoying people who think pharmaceutical companies are working secretly with the gov’t and how they are the devil, and just outrageous claims and nonsense that actually slows down the progress of modern medicine. hahahahahahaha

Bruce, my advice is, although National Security is crucial, and I would never undermine the importance of everything the US does to keep everyone safe, but as far as YOU go,

Chill, or Run for President,

You are a little “too much”

Let Law Enforcement do their job, and you stick to politics.

vasiliy pupkin January 14, 2013 7:53 AM

“Let Law Enforcement do their job, and you stick to politics”.
All LE efforts/job directed to fight real crimes (violent first) should be supported by any normal person.
In order that LE follow and apply Law & Constitution uniformly and not becoming tool put into prison somebody just for using their Constitutional right (e.g. 1st
Amendment) and/or political dissent ALL LE activities should be under strict oversight by Legislature and courts, and most important by citizens through mass media, blogs, etc.
Otherwise LE sooner or later is becoming Stasi, and in worst case scenario – Gestapo /NKVD.
History confirmed that agree you or not with that last statement.

tim January 14, 2013 10:21 AM


Ah dude – Schneier’s focus is security. Not politics (Schneier would make a very bad politician). And law enforcement falls squarely under that heading.

Gentry Marks January 15, 2013 5:55 PM

Haha… I read “Hobbesian state” and assumed that was a Calvin and Hobbes reference. 😉

Clive Robinson January 16, 2013 1:19 AM

@ Gentry Marks,

Haha… I read “Hobbesian state” and assumed that was a Calvin and Hobbes reference.

Joking aside, people do get confused over “Hobbesian”, because of the similarity of “Hobbesian choice” and “Hobson’s Choice” which mean entirely seperat things,'s_choice

John G January 18, 2013 5:44 AM

There is a lot of wisdom in the article. Basic message: ‘security’ is not a single agreed thing or value, it is a bundle of concepts that need to be unpacked with the same kind of political and social analysis as concepts more generally agreed to be complicated and political, like justice.

And the ‘sovereign’ that can make us all secure does not exist. Not only have we met the enemy and he is us, but we have met the sovereign, and he too is us. We had better find a way to live with that.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.