The latest movie in the Marvel franchise, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, explores a timeless political question in a modern context. The question is whether people value freedom over security and whether we sacrifice our freedom for the sake of security or risk security for the sake of freedom. The modern context is the increasing exposure of our private lives to the state through the information we reveal by our ubiquitous use of digital technology. This information enables the state to keep an ever watchful eye on us, and ominously to use this information to identify ‘threats’ to the state. The central conflict in this story is between those that are scheming to use this technology in the name of maintaining order and those who recognize it as a threat to freedom and fight to dismantle it.
This threat to freedom comes from Captain America’s original enemy, the shadowy terrorist-type organization, Hydra. Hydra is portrayed as being the main agent of chaos in the world. After their defeat in WWII, they learned that that the way to eliminate freedom from the world was not to take it by force, but to convince people to give it up willingly. They would do this by making the world an increasingly dangerous place (the Winter Solider is presented as a hidden menace that has provoked much of the violence in the world) that out of fear man would relinquish his freedom in exchange for greater security.
This theme raises the question of why there is a tradeoff between freedom and security. Why does more freedom have to mean less security and order? Conversely, why does more order have to result in less freedom? Perhaps the origins of this tension lies in our modern concept of what freedom means. The modern notion of freedom lies in the Enlightenment understanding of man as an autonomous individual. ‘Autonomous’ literally means self-law or rule. There are two fundamentally different understandings of autonomy. One assumes that moral laws exist and are revealed or discovered. The other assumes that moral laws do not exist but are determined by individuals.
In the former view, free individuals govern themselves according to natural moral law. By natural, I do not mean scientific laws of nature, by moral laws that are intrinsic in human nature and known innately, revealed by God to men everywhere. A free individual does not need the threat of force from the government to compel him to live a righteous life. Rather, he does what is right because he knows rationally that this is what is best for himself and his community, or perhaps for religious reasons that this will please God. This approach limits the power of the state by rendering it largely unnecessary for preserving order. Order is established by individuals within local communities governing themselves.
In the later view, free individuals throw off the constraints of moral law that they themselves have not chosen, rejecting the idea of a moral law that they receive and must submit to. Instead, moral codes are fashioned according to what suits the needs, or more precisely the desires, of the individual. Right and wrong is a matter of what he chooses, and enables ‘authentic’ self-expression and unrestrained satisfaction of desire.
This approach, ironically, enlarges the power of the state by increasing the distrust individuals have toward each other. Trust in a society requires a shared sense of meaning, which is developed through a commitment to common moral values. Individuals may enjoy the freedom of only looking out for themselves, but they despise when others do the same at their expense. When individuals are not governing themselves according to a common moral code, distrust breeds fear, and fear demands that force be employed to regulate behavior that is viewed as threatening.
In the first view, the government has a limited role in providing security. A sense of security arises from the trust individuals have with each other when they believe that others are governing themselves according to intrinsic moral law. In other words, when people are freely governing themselves, not according to the laws of the state, but according to the laws of God, the need for security and order is also fulfilled (the government still has a role because evil exists and there are always some who will not govern themselves rightly). In the second view, the government has potentially an unlimited role in providing security. This view of freedom produces ever growing chaos which invites government power to provide the order that individuals are failing to provide for themselves.