Keiko Hiromi/Polaris/Newscom

Keiko Hiromi/Polaris/Newscom

The horrific terrorist attack in Boston this week, and the ensuing investigation to find the person or persons responsible, once again highlight the age-old question: How must America balance security and liberty?

We at The Heritage Foundation cherish both individual liberty and security and have written about both before and after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Recently, we tried to answer the question head-on by publishing a monograph entitled “How Must America Balance Security and Liberty,” part of Heritage’s Understanding America series.

“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention,” wrote John Jay in Federalist No. 3, “that of providing for their safety seems to be the first.”

The founding generation knew firsthand the oppression of tyranny. The litany of British abuses and usurpations is cited in the Declaration of Independence. To the Founders, these were violations of both man’s natural rights and of the security that a sovereign is obliged to provide the people. In such circumstances, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

And so they did, and the nation was thrust into war. From the first, Americans saw liberty and security as one and the same, not in opposition.

Although we often speak of the proper “balance” between security and liberty, the two need not be in tension. Policies that make the nation more secure, particularly against foreign threats, do not necessarily undermine its people’s liberty. Nor does protecting individual liberty invariably hobble the nation’s defense. Rather, as the Constitution recognizes, the two are reinforcing: We “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” A threat to America’s security is also a threat to Americans’ liberties.

“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” observed James Madison in Federalist No. 51, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Almost all nations achieve control of the governed, though more often by force than by consent. Limits on the power of governments are rarer and more complex. Yet they are essential to preserving both security and liberty. This problem was the Framers’ chief concern in drafting the Constitution, and their solution was radical and brilliant.

The problem they faced was the one identified deftly by Ronald Reagan: “The kind of government that is strong enough to give you everything you need is also strong enough to take away everything that you have.” Any power delegated by the people to their government may be abused and used against them. History is replete with examples of such oppression, and it remains common today.

But it has not happened in America. The Constitution’s Framers placed their faith not in specific guarantees of rights—those came later—but in an elegant system of checks on government. Foremost is the separation of power between the three branches of the federal government as well as between the federal government and the states. These arrangements provide the flexibility necessary to ensure security and the restraint essential to safeguard liberties.

To read the entire monograph, click here.