Civil Liberties and Economics: More Than Just Free Markets

Lynne Kiesling

I wasn’t around KP a lot last week because I was spending a lot of time following the Patriot Act extension debacle and contacting my Congressional representatives to urge them to vote against it (of my so-called representatives, only Senator Durbin did so; I think this is the first time he and I have aligned on an issue).

The past couple of weeks have been brutal for our civil liberties in the US. Consider this incomplete list:

In the past two weeks the legal enforcement of our inalienable right to be free from unreasonable search seems to have almost disappeared.

You may ask why I’m paying so much attention to Patriot Act-related issues (including my frequently-articulated objections to the TSA, an outcome of the Patriot Act), and what is its relevance to our economic decisions and choices. The first and most obvious reason is the morality of the issue. Free people, in a country whose legal institutions are premised on protecting that freedom, have inalienable rights, and we have stipulated legal institutions for the protection of those rights (NOT for the granting and definition of those already-existing rights). In this case the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution is the legal institution being destroyed (and the First and Fifth (due process) are taking a beating too), with the evisceration of our civil liberties as the consequence.

The second reason is the more consequentialist, utilitarian one relating to economics. How can we thrive, be happy, be productive, invest, take on risks, when we are not secure in our life, liberty, and property? Our civil liberties are an essential foundation of those secure property rights on which our economic activity and economic growth are built. Without being secure in our life, liberty, and property, our economic selves wither.

Matt Zwolinski’s recent post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians articulates well why the erosion of civil liberties matters, both at a daily personal level and at an intellectual level, and implicitly at both a moral and economic level, and why we should emphasize both economic liberty and civil liberty in our policy arguments.

Economic freedom is not the only freedom over which governments currently run roughshod.  And, as I have suggested here before, it is probably not even the most important one. …

But libertarians, and especially bleeding heart libertarians, ought to give these issues much more attention than they currently do.  First, these issues matter for people’s lives, especially the lives of the poor and vulnerable who are much more likely to find themselves victimized by the growing police state, either directly or indirectly.  Second, precisely because they aren’t under dispute we can make compelling arguments on these issues without first trying to resolve all of the difficult and intractable problems that divide various schools of political and philosophical thought.

Economic liberties and civil liberties are complements, and the erosion of one erodes the other. These are some of the reasons why I am paying such close attention to the Patriot Act and the TSA, why I am acting to encourage change.

4 thoughts on “Civil Liberties and Economics: More Than Just Free Markets

  1. Please consider signing the petition to demand accountability for the prosecution of Thomas Drake (profiled by Jane Mayer in her New Yorker article).

    If you need more information about the Thomas Drake, visit the Save Tom Drake facebook page:

    Follow @savetomdrake on twitter:

    Kind regards,….

  2. When I hear about the TSA and the Patriot act, it makes me think how much corruption and law breaking occurs behind closed doors. We are all aware of the enhanced security at airports, but what will be next if our next crop of politicians don’t stop the madness.
    Lynne, I want to thank you for opening my eyes to reading more about history and economics after taking classes taught by you during my undergraduate. I have learned so much from reading since taking history of economic thought, and environmental economics classes.

  3. What the Blogfather said:

    THEY TOLD ME IF I VOTED FOR JOHN MCCAIN WE’D SEE THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY EXPAND: And they were right! “Civil libertarians once looked to this president to right the constitutional balance. But what Obama has wrought is the same old ‘Terror Presidency’ with new rhetoric.” You were expecting a Chicago machine politician to support civil liberties? Rubes!

    Posted at 6:06 pm by Glenn Reynolds

  4. Hi Dan, how are you? Thank you very much for your kind comment, and I’m glad I helped light the fire of continual inquiry and learning! That’s a big part of what I hope to achieve in my work, so thank you for sharing.

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