Issue 109, Winter 2008/2009

by Joan E. Bertin

The economy has tanked. Chaos in financial institutions has been averted for the moment only through the infusion of federal funds. Hardship is spreading, leaving people without homes and jobs, shrinking the middle class and creating panic in educational and cultural institutions.

Economic security, as the philosopher Irwin Edman observed at the end of
the Great Depression, is a “political condition of personal freedom.” The
corollary is that economic hard times have severe political consequences:
they undermine personal freedoms and especially civil liberties.

For the past seven years, we’ve heard claims that in an age of terrorism, security concerns trump civil liberties. As a result, the public has come to tolerate previously unacceptable levels of government surveillance, loss of privacy, and incursions on the rights of criminal defendants and immigrants. Civil liberties were characterized as a luxury we might have to sacrifice so as to ensure our security.

With the worsening economy, we now face the threat that the institutions that support critical cultural discourse and uphold civil liberties will be seen as a luxury we might need to sacrifice so as to ensure economic survival.

Allowing institutions of civil society like universities, community organizations, advocacy and cultural groups to weaken at a time of massive economic crisis jeopardizes democracy itself. As the crisis deepens and more people lose their financial security, we may well experience increased social unrest. The danger is that this will in turn trigger
increased state authoritarianism. We need a strong civil society to resist such a tendency. As history confirms, a deep economic crisis is a turning point, which can easily lead to a loss of civil liberties, the most notorious modern example being Germany after the devastation of World War I.

At times of crisis, – both economic and political – it is critical to maintain the institutions and safeguards that protect our freedoms. To do otherwise could be fatal to our spirit and our democracy.