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.