One of the defining features of modern Western politics is the idea of striking balances between opposing interests. The idea is that nobody is right or wrong on most issues, and as such, the job of a democratic government is to represent all sides of “the spectrum” in a “balanced” manner. This idea of balance has penetrated so deep into societal mindset that people earnestly debate issues such as the recent privacy scandal from the standpoint of balancing security with privacy. The issue is presented in terms of a pair of scales on which your safety is being measured against your privacy, and that the correct resolution is some precise configuration in the quantity of these two things.

In truth, balance is mostly irrelevant in political discourse. Balance is important for a chef seasoning a dish, or for a designer working on a palette of colors for a brand, but in political philosophy balance is not just irrelevant, it is often antithetical to the core principles of how society should function.

Take the issue of slavery. The abolition of slavery is not an issue of balance – if it was there would still be slave ownership today. The issue of slavery is the issue of human rights. At the foundation of modern Western society lie the principles of human rights, namely, the freedom afforded to you from other people, both for your person and for your possessions. What this means is that man has a right over his or her own life – and only that life – and recognizing this, society works together to protect this right by means of a police force and the courts of law. Slave ownership is antithetical to this principle, and as such, cannot exist in modern society. Even if a large portion of the population wants to own slaves – even if the majority does – they will not be allowed to because it would transgress the right of each man to his or her own life.

But what if the majority does not agree with the principle? Then the principle has to change, but only if a rational alternative is found. Moral principles are not issues of balance, they are our most developed description of what it means to be human, ways of unifying humanity without destroying its multiplicity – i.e. we unite our strengths in order that we may protect our freedom to pursue our own purpose and happiness, not that we may structure a society on the designs of a few.

A common purpose and common pursuits are possible through philosophy and religion, but they have to be embraced freely, not mandated by law. The mind cannot function to its fullest when restrained, and history shows that mass restraint of man’s capacity to reason has always led to societal collapse. Society requires absolute principles to function, but these principles may themselves change over time as our conception of Man develops.

The issue of online privacy is again the issue of rights, not of balance. The whole point of a security service is the protection of a country, namely, its citizens and their property. Online communications are private property of individual citizens, each message being a transaction between a sender and an intended recipient. Public messages become public property, but not private messages where a recipient is specified. One cannot acquire or read private communications without breaching the very basic principle of property rights.

In order that a security service may function effectively, it may sometimes be necessary to access private information, but those breaches have to be individually authorized by a court of law, just as one requires a search warrant to search a house – they cannot be indiscriminate. An indiscriminate breach of private information by a security service is a transgression of private property, and as such, goes against the very purpose of said service, which is intended to protect that property from others – including itself – rather than gain access to it.

Privacy and security should not be balanced against each other since the whole point of security is the protection of privacy. An effective security method need not necessarily be used since security by itself is not the measure of what is being protected. A prisoner may be well protected, but a prison is not a place where one would choose to live their life.

Politics is the development of principles on which a society may thrive. It is not an act of balancing public opinion – a fickle force that is oftentimes harmful to itself. The public gets frightened, it gets angry, it gets addicted, it gets manipulated, and it often does not know what lies in its best interests – that is, it does know what it wants, but it does not know the best way to get it. It is a politicians job to listen to public opinion but not be swayed by it, to pacify and reason with the public rather than give in to its latest whim, to lead rather than to merely represent. Representation does not equal justice, and isn’t that, after all, what we strive to achieve – a just society, not merely a safe one?

Published November 2013