Freedom vs Security: Freedom at any cost?

A little while back the BBC produced a fantastic series called A history of ideas. There are tons of clips to explore on the site (though very sadly they all use Flash player so might won’t work in many browsers and devices).

Here’s a personal favourite that I’ve been thinking about this year since Brexit and the US election: Freedom vs Security: Freedom at any cost?


Freedom is good, but security is better. That’s what Thomas Hobbes believed. He made his point by imagining what it would be like to live without government, laws, or society. In this ‘State of Nature’ you could do whatever you wanted to. But anyone else could do whatever they wanted to to you. You’d have plenty of freedom; but you’d live in constant fear. It would be grim.

You wouldn’t be able to trust anyone. Even the weakest cold kill the strongest by stealth. It would be difficult to cooperate. Or even survive. Life, Hobbs claimed, would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Anyone would do whatever they could to avoid living like that.

Hobbs suggested a way out. People in the state of nature could agree a contract, to put a strong leader, a sovereign, or perhaps a government in power over them to keep the peace. Individuals would join together and hand over many of their freedoms, most of them in fact. But it would be worth it to gain security and escape the terror of the war of all against all. The state could then rule with an iron rod is necessary. Or a light touch if not.

That’s what Hobbs thought, and it’s his justification for having a strong sovereign or government with extensive powers over the people. The trouble is, what you end up with may be peace, but at the cost of a frighteningly powerful state.  

Having never formally studied philosophy, politics or social science, the history of ideas like this is mostly hidden to me (hence the BBC series), so I love the succinct way that such fundamental ideas can be expressed. It pours fuel on my belief that Religious Education should be renamed and expanded in schools into Philosophy. I would love to have learned these ideas as a teen. 

Further reading on Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. ‘Commonly referred to as Leviathan’.