Friday, October 24, 2008

freedom has consequences

One of the things that annoys me about our democracy is the fact that people seem completely unable to recognize that our freedoms come with payoffs. There are some profound negative consequences to living in a free society, and there is always-- always-- going to be some kind of an attendant tradeoff in terms of safety. That's just how it is. Life doesn't give us perfect; it gives us difficult choices and requires us to choose. America is that country that has decided that being free is better than being safe. Sometimes that's really hard to live with. There are, of course, many countries that are safer than America, and you're free to pursue the process of emigrating to them. But they come with costs to your liberties. There are various degrees to these tradeoffs; eventually, the "safety over freedom" option leads you to Singapore. You're very safe, in Singapore, provided you think and act in just the way the government wants you to.

When I read posts like this one from Jezebel, I get discouraged, because I'm reading someone who simply doesn't understand that our rights come with necessary tradeoffs. Is this guy a scumbag? Yes-- and let's be perfectly clear, this guy is going back to jail, and so the most important and basic elements of justice will indeed by done. It's true, it's unfortunate that this woman has to live through this cross-examination. We cannot have rights of the accused without this kind of process. Can't, can't, can't. Having rights of the accused sometimes makes life more difficult for the victims of crime. But our system absolutely must have these protections, or risk losing any claim to being a vehicle of justice at all. The same protections that allow this scumbag to do this helps keep innocent men out of prison. And even with out vigorous system of rights for the accused, innocent men go to jail all the time. I could post dozens of examples of men who went to jail for rape erroneously and were later revealed to be innocent. If we further undercut the rights of the accused, cases like this will inevitably rise. I have tremendous sympathy for this woman; but she lives under a blanket of freedom that makes certain ugly and sad incidents like this cross-examination inevitable. You can't have both perfect freedom and perfect safety. Ever.

Likewise, the freedom of expression has negative connotations. The right to speak truth to power can only exist if that right also protects the rights of the worst to speak out. As soon as society decides what has "redeeming value" or not, the right to freedom of speech loses any meaning whatsoever. Living in a country where you are free to say what you think means living in a country where you are going to be offended by what your neighbors say, from time to time. There is no workable tradeoff that preserves the former and prevents the latter. None. And, by the way, those limits to free speech don't work to prevent those ideas, anyway. Germany has outlawed Nazism; they have a huge neo-Nazi problem. Forcing ugly ideas underground doesn't exterminate them, it empowers them, increasing their proponents' sense of alienation and victimhood in a way that drives them to further radicalism.

As an aside, people need to remember-- without the rights of the accused, none of our other rights have any meaning. Because if they are violated, it is only our rights of the accused that give us the ability to challenge that infringement. If you speak out politically, and they try to drag you away, your ability to fight that as unconstitutional only exists thanks to our rights of the accused. If you own a gun and they come and pry it away from you, your only legal recourse is to use your rights of the accused. Political freedom means nothing without habeas corpus. Social freedom means nothing without the right to a fair trial. I think we'd all do well to remember these things.

1 comment:

  1. One of your best posts yet, Freddie. I would much rather have the occasional guilty man walk free than the occasional innocent man go to jail. No one has the right to go around all day and never get offended by anything. That happens in a free society.


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