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Civil Liberties vs Security Essay

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Updated: Sep 25th, 2020

Philosophers dreamt of theories to create the ideal world that could throw away the evils of the time. For example, Descartes’s power of reason or Hobbes and Locke’s arguments against absolute rule bring forth a phenomenal change in the political structure that tried to remove the evil present in the system. However, can these theories explain the increasing number of state terrorism, use of torture to counter terrorism, and curtailing of liberty in the name of counterintelligence? In this era of mass terrorism, the question of civil liberty, freedom, and state sponsored surveillance blurs the public-private space (Bromwich, 2001).

Ideas of liberty, freedom, and justice are contradicted when applied to the modern occurrences of state sponsored surveillance of the private space (Davis & Silver, 2004). Increasing state surveillance of private citizens, with or without their knowledge to counter terrorism has brought up questions related to freedom, civil liberty, and private space. Is government-sponsored surveillance on the citizens legitimate? Do we restrict the freedom of people in the name of state security? Contrary to Rousseau’s belief in natural freedom, state surveillance systems curtail privacy, freedom, and liberty of citizens as a counterterrorism measure.

This shows a rise of despotic government’s fear of terror attack and its surveillance on its citizens to subside its own insecurities. This paper shows that the acts of civic surveillance prevalent in America to counter a terrorist attack, a phenomenon that has gained precedence post-9/11, curtails civil rights of people and violates their private space and freedom. The paper will analyze the case of Edward Snowden and his disclosure of the practices of the US National Security Agency (NSA) that has triggered questions related to freedom, justice, and security raised by Rousseau. I argue, following Rousseau, that even though surveillance system takes away privacy of the people, there is a necessity to create a balance between the two.

Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau have presented varied ideas related to liberty, justice, and power of the government respectively. The idea of freedom is essential in all these philosophies, though they differ in their arguments about the extent of freedom of people and the degree of state’s powers.

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher was a proponent of natural rights of man. Life is important and everyone is entitled to live (McCoy, n.d., slide 5). Every person is entitled to individual liberty and he can attain anything as long as it does not compromise the natural rights of other individuals. He agreed with Hobbes with the necessity of a social contract to control the brutality of the state of nature (McCoy, 2015). However, he felt that the sovereign should have the authority to decide the fate of the people.

Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) was born into a noble family in France. He first proposed that establishing three different types of governments – republics, monarchies, and despots (McCoy, n.d., slide 18). These types show the kind of governance present in a state. For example, a despot would curtail the powers of the three branches of the government, legislative, executive, and judicial, and control the whole state (Glover, n.d., slide 19). State despotism was a concern for Montesquieu and hence he suggested the separation of powers to uphold the rule of law. However, when the state decides to override the rule and act arbitrarily, it becomes a despot.

Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s (1712-1778), born in Switzerland but received education in France and Italy (McCoy, slide 30). His philosophy rested on his belief that man is naturally born free but these rights to liberty cannot put restraint on the sovereign power of the State, which is boundless (McCoy, 2015). However, Rousseau believes, in spite of man’s natural right to be free. State’s autonomy cannot be countered. He felt that man in his natural state is good but society corrupts him.

Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau were proponents of the social contract, however, there is difference in their ideas about democracy. Locke believed that man is born free in the natural state and has rights such as life, liberty, and property. Locke believed these rights could not be taken away from man and cannot be surrendered to the sovereign (i.e. the king). However, he did agree with the presence of a social contract, which is an agreement between the people and the sovereign. Fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, views, and ideas are important to man. The philosophy proponed that public good, business, and private property had to be protected by the governments. The government’s superiority, according to Locke, should lie in law making.

Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws published in 1748, stated that man as an individual is scared of war and avoided it (McCoy, 2015). Food was essential for living that induced man to enter the society. By entering the society, man lost his sense of fear and weakness. Montesquieu, like Locke, believed that the government and laws are formed due to the state of war. However, he stressed on government’s duty to maintain law and order.

Rousseau on the other hand believed that the social contract was between people and the sovereign where sovereign was the whole community (Cerf, 2013). This is where he differed in his ideas from Locke and Montesquieu. He believed that social contract was not a willing agreement. The problem man faced in the state of nature, he argued, was to protect life, property, and freedom. Rousseau believed in absolute democracy wherein the people has all the political power.

Rousseau proposed absolute democracy wherein the people will deliberate on issues of the law and the majority vote will determine the general-will (Cerf, 2013). Montesquieu believed in separation of power, while Locke believed that the power rested in the sovereign (or the king) and he had to govern the people lightly. Locke believed that the poor were not reliable candidates to participate in the government as he felt they were unfit. On the other hand, Rousseau believed the people must form the government.

The present fear of mass terrorism curtails civil liberties of the people. Security is an issue that plagues governments of the US and Europe. After 9/11, there was a rise in surveillance in the US. However, the release of the intelligence practices in the US by Edward Snowden stirred a lot of debate related to privacy of the people (Cerf, 2013). The question of security and freedom is discussed with respect to common good. This has three aspects – security, freedom, and welfare.

Though other social contract theorists like Hobbes and Locke believed that freedom has to be surrendered in order to maintain security, Rousseau believed in complete freedom as he advocated that the general will decides the law, it will do what the majority of the general will decides. Here, general will imply all the people. Thus, Rousseau feels that some freedom and rights has to be given to the sovereign, and not to the government, which is a different entity. However, in every society, people will be dissatisfied if they loose their privacy to government actors as has been suggested by Snowden. However, they need security from the growing fear of mass terrorism.

Thus, the trade-off is between freedom and security. Rousseau believed that in order to control the chaos that would be created in the natural state of man, he had to enter a social contract, and create law. Montesquieu believed a state of war created the necessity to create laws. Rousseau however, said that people’s freedom is important and that is why the sovereign created should be by the people. In a modern state, this is usually the case, as we have a representative government.

In case of the cyber security threats to privacy, it should be noted that the issue arises when the government, to counter the threat of terrorism, undertakes measures to reduce that threat. However, privacy is essential as it is essential to preserve the control of the self that includes body, location, and information (Moore, 2011). It is believed that privacy, when taken away, depletes the identity of individuals (Moore, 2011).

On the other hand, security is essential to ensure the safety of individuals, as opposed to the chaos that it would otherwise create. In other words, security is synonymous to safety. Security, in the face of mass terror, is more important as it creates a safety net that disposes the inherent fear of death that a life-threatening situation might create.

Rousseau argued that freedom and rights are essential. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s arguments were based on his understanding of freedom within geographical boundaries. However, when the threat comes from spaces where there is no boundary, it becomes difficult to control the threat. The government that we have today is a representative of the people. This government is duty-bound to ensure the safety of the people from terrorism.

The fear involved with the privacy issue is that the individuals loose the power to control the self and encroaches on their civil rights. Disclosure of secret documents by Edward Snowden, I believe, can jeopardize the safety net created by the government for the safety of the people. Though from one aspect, it may appear that such disclosure will help uphold civil rights, but such rights should be given away to the sovereign, which in this case is the government, to ensure security.

I believe transparency is essential in the society and the government machinery should not take advantage of the power given to it by the people. If privacy is invaded at the government’s whim then no one can remain free. However, government policy must create a balance between privacy and security, though it is difficult. There must be balancing test to show that the invasion of privacy was essentially for the security of the people such that the latter do not feel violated.

The question of security gains precedence in this debate as this is related to the security of the people as a whole and the nation. Even Rousseau, who was the most liberal advocates of freedom and liberty, believed that some civil rights had to be given to the sovereign to ensure safety. Thus, invasion of privacy in the post-9/11 world has become a priority for many governments but the debate on security and privacy demonstrates that a balance is necessary to ensure that the infringement does not invade the identity of the people but is important for the security of the people and the nation.


Bromwich, D. (2001). Introduction: Private and public. Social Research, 68(1) , 3-3.

Cerf, V. G. (2013). Freedom and the social contract. Communications of the ACM, 56(9) , 7-7.

Davis, D. W., & Silver, B. D. (2004). Civil liberties vs. security: Public opinion in the context of the terrorist attacks on America. American Journal of Political Science, 48(1) , 28-46.

McCoy, D. E. (2015). . Youtube. Web.

McCoy, D. E. (n.d.). The Enlightenment.

Moore, A. D. (2011). Privacy, security, and government surveillance: WikiLeaks and the new accountability. Public Affairs Quarterly 25(2) , 141-156.

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