Minority Report

The Security State and Civil Liberties

Thoſe who would give up ESSENTIAL LIBERTY to purchaſe a little TEMPORARY SAFETY, deſerve neither LIBERTY nor SAFETY.

— Benjamin Franklin, 11 November 1775



The year is 2054, and statism, at least within the District of Columbia, has run amok.  Like any other dystopia, Minority Report, through presenting a picture of an future society, helps to illustrate problems that may exist already in our own society.  As George Orwell, author of that dystopian classic 1984, explained,

I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive.  I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences.  The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.1

In the case of Minority Report, we are presented with a régime in which that brutal master we call the state has usurped so much power from the individual that it literally arrests individuals before they even think of committing a crime.  Thus, the film thereby allegorically demonstrates the inherent tyranny in all police states obsessed with security, or as Professor Lester D. Friedman puts it, “The film posits that uncritically trusting in any system inevitably leads to disastrous consequences.”2  While the film does not depict the literal state of things in present-day America, it does satirise the present authoritarian trends by presenting to us what is basically the current American state on steroids.  Thus, as the Ludwig von Mises Institute explains,

More and more the State makes crimes of actions that don’t cause any harm, but might.  Drunk driving, an improper paperwork trail for a large transfer of money, violation of any of a multitude of gun purchasing regulations.  The point is no longer merely to punish the wrongdoer, but to prevent the crime from happening in the first place.  What is the logical culmination of this?  …  [Minority Report] brilliantly explores issues of predestination and free will while demonstrating the injustice of a “justice” system that punishes not for actual crimes, but for ones that are yet to be committed…the ultimate “tradeoff” of liberty for security.3

In addition to the obviously unjust arrest of innocent persons who have yet to even commit a crime and who fail to receive a fair trial, Minority Report depicts four easily-noticeable aspects of the security state.  These are: (1) the Spyders, which the police use to “visually interrogate” random individuals; (2) the apparent lack of any requirement to acquire search warrants prior to sending in the Spyders; (3) the unconstitutional and illiberal government database required to hold retinal data of all of the subjects of the D. C. city-state; and (4) the clear destruction of private domestic property by the statist thugs in the Precrime unit.  Let us look at each of these individually.

The Security State:
The Spyders

The “Spyders” are little machines that look like spiders, that are able to get through small crevices, that have the capability of tracking down living organisms based on the infrared radiation of the organism, and that are primarily used for the scanning of the retinas of various “suspects.”  The police use them in order to track down those they believe will commit murder in the future.  And, at first, they might not sound so bad.

TThe Spyders scan Andertonhe problem with the Spyders is not their menacing shape, however, but rather the invasion of privacy that their use ensures.  As Dr. Friedman describes it, there is a scene in which the Spyders “visually interrogate its helpless inhabitants: frightened children, a couple making love, another man and woman fighting, an old man sitting on the toilet.  Even in their most private moments, none can find sanctuary from the government’s intrusive, and ultimately oppressive, tactics.”4

A point must be made here concerning the nature of right.  Rights are not things granted by governments or by documents, for only privileges can be granted and revoked; unlike privileges, rights are, by definition, natural and inalienable.  Moreover, humans have a natural right to individual sovereignty.  This is, after all, why abolitionists like Frederick Douglass called slaveholders “man-stealers”: the slaveholders were violating the inalienable self-ownership of their victims.  Every other natural right possessed by a human is derived from her individual sovereignty, including her right to property acquired through the nonviolent labour of her own body, and the corollary right to privacy when she is on her own property.  Thus, when the police send a machine into your apartment—without your consent and, to boot, without even a warrant—the police are infringing upon your property rights, and thus ultimately upon your individual sovereignty.  This is true whether you are a child or an adult, whether you are making love or fighting, whether you are eating breakfast and using the toilet.  Therefore, what the police do in Minority Report is objectively criminal and undefendable.

Let us look at just one instance: the children.  Dr. Friedman above is absolutely correct to describe the children as frightened by the appearance of the Spyders.  As one mother tells an officer, “They’re crying their eyes out; you terrified them!”  Should those children have had to endure that sort of torment?  Some statists may say that they, in fact, should have endured it, that their enduring it achieves some sort of “greater good.”  Or, they pretend that the children signed some sort of “social contract” before they were even born, and therefore are somehow honour-bound to abide by it.  It is all poppycock, of course.  The police achieved no “greater good,” and there never has been a “social contract.”

Of course, the officer in the movie cared little, if at all, about the natural rights of the children or of their mother.  Thus the officer growls in return, “If you don’t want your kids to know terror, keep ’em away from me.”  A curt, yet very telling, comment, for it illustrates that, notwithstanding all of the humanitarian rhetoric to the contrary, the state apparatus is, at root, a terrorist organisation.  Alas, therefore, can we really expect any respect for privacy from any statist system?

The Security State:
Eye-dents and Government Databases

Of course, the Spyders would have been useless had the state not first set up its “eye-dent” programme.  Eye-dent is the term the police in Minority Report use to describe an individual’s unique pattern of blood vessels within the retina of the eye.  Since each person has a unique pattern of blood vessels, each “eye-dent” is unique.

But it is not enough for each pattern to be unique.  The police must also have forced every individual to have her or his eye-dents prescanned, and the information must be stored in some sort of government-run database.  After all, without the state having organised this collection of data, it would have no way of knowing whether the Spyder has located the specific individual for whom it is searching.  Like a slave, the individual is given no choice in the matter.

Thus, all individuals in the society of Minority Report have been forced by the powerful state apparatus to surrender even more of their privacy to the selfsame state apparatus.  In the same way individuals are forced, from birth, to take part in the Social Security system, and to be assigned Social Security Numbers, it is likely that the innocent victims of the security state in Minority Report are required to undergo retinal data scanning at very early ages.  Unlike the market, which gives consumers choices and variety, the state is a monopoly.

But the statist eye-dent requirements do not only benefit the state, it also benefits the advertisers in the world of Minority Report, who can use this government-imposed technology so as to target consumers.  Thus, the eye-dent programme is not only an egregious invasion of privacy, but it also manifests itself as a form of corporate welfare.

The Security State:
Search Warrants and Due Process

Perhaps scariest of all is the apparent fact that cops in 2054 no longer have to acquire search warrants in order to search your private property, whether in person or through a proxy.  Thus, it seems that the fourth amendment is dead in the America of the future.

Since we already have unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping today, it is not inconceivable that by the year 2054, the various governments of these united states will look upon the fourth amendment with the same insouciance with which it looks at virtually the entire U. S. Constitution.

The Security State:
Destruction of Private Property

Finally, we encounter in Minority Report a statist régime so apathetic to the rights of individuals that it literally destroys the private property of private civilians in its pursuit of a man who has “[has]n’t cause[d] any harm, but might.”

(Property damage in films is something that many easily overlook, but shouldn’t.  After all, as Frédéric Bastiat demonstrated in his essay “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen,” the idea that society benefits from destruction is a fallacy.  This has become known as the broken window fallacy.  Thus, Bastiat correctly points out that “Society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed.”)

In one scene, cops from the Precrime unit chase the main character, John Anderton, using jet packs.  With these jet packs raging, the police monopoly smash through private residences, thereby creating at least thousands-of-dollars worth of property damage.  Meanwhile, stunned families are seen sitting as the mayhem ensues.

The irony here, as well as the hypocrisy, is quite thick.  Destruction of property without the consent of owners is an act that clearly harms those who would not necessarily want their property damaged or destroyed.  Yet, the state’s henchmen have no qualms with committing this harmful act in order to capture a man who is either innocent or at least no greater a criminal than themselves.

Civil Liberties and Unjust Arrests

All of these features of the hyperactive security state allow the film to make “vivid controversies over whether it is an individual’s past actions that alone justify punishment or whether one can use the power of the state to pre-empt future misdeeds.”5

Throughout the majority of the film, the state’s hired henchmen are preoccupied with catching John Anderton, a man who they believe will commit the crime of murder.  Because they believe he will commit the murder, they believe not only that they are justified in preventing the murder, but that they are justified in punishing Anderton even if Anderton never commits the murder, never gets around to attempting to commit the murder, and has not even yet considered committing a murder.

Most viewers would likely concede that there is nothing intrinsically wrong in acting to prevent a murder from taking place.  Rather, what ought to be of concern to viewers is that this state goes far beyond merely preventing a crime from having taken place, and instead goes so far as to enact punishments against persons who are still, in fact, innocent.  Reason dictates that a person does not become guilty of murder until he has actually committed murder, and does not become guilty of attempted murder until he has actually attempted to commit murder.  After all, one cannot be epistemologically sure that a person will attempt to commit an action until the person does.  And yet, in Minority Report, the powers that be mete out punishment to those that they believe will commit murder, anyway.

So why do these Precrime officers believe they know the future?  In short, because they have enslaved a small number of individuals—called “Precogs”—with the unfortunate gift seeing in their dreams what appear to be murders yet to come.  Thus, as one book tells us,

In Minority Report, the central character [Anderton] is “seen” by the clairvoyants to commit a future killing (or at least a killing that will take place in the absence of intervention).  That character, at the last moment before the killing is “meant” to take place, claims to have a “free” will that allows him to choose an alternative (despite the fact that the death actually does occur).  Is the truth of his claim compatible with presuppositions of the plot?  If the other “criminals” in the film who were apprehended on the basis of the seers’ predictions were in some sense predetermined to commit crimes in the absence of intervention, was it appropriate for the state to hold them morally responsible and thus deserving of punishment?6

And there is the rub.  If predestination is real, then we can be sure that none of those captured and convicted of future murders were actually predestined to commit them, for if they were predestined to commit them, the intervention of the Precrime unit would have failed to prevent the murders.  Because they neither murdered nor were predestined to murder, any punishment they receive must be unjust.  On the other hand, if humans have free will, then humans are capable of choosing not to murder no matter how many psychics dream you will murder.  Thus, if free will exists, the punishments are still unjust.

No matter how you slice it, the D. C. city-state in Minority Report is stomping on the civil liberties of its subjects and engaging in unjust arrests.

Conclusion: Liberty Requires Eternal Vigilance

In his review of Minority Report, Robert Barnes writes,

In this new world order, cops are still necessary, but they are as much priests as policemen.  They receive oracles from the Precogs, interpret the oracles and determine how society ought to respond.  In other words, just like priests they hold the real power.  They are the interpreters of the prophetic word.  They are judge, jury, and executioner.  …  But there is a weakness: Precrime cops are still human, and humans are flawed.7

Benjamin Ricketson Tucker (1854–1939)

Not all people defend the existence of the state.  I, for example, would prefer to see voluntary organisations—private companies, voluntary communes, mutual aid societies, nonviolent unions, and whatever other voluntary organisations you can imagine—replace the monopolistic state apparatus.  I am what one might call an anarchist.  Unfortunately, few understand what anarchism entails.  They envision not law and peace, but rather chaos and destruction.  What makes one an anarchist is not the belief that there should be no law or even the belief that there should be no law enforcement personnel, as the nineteenth-century anarchist Benjamin Tucker explained, but rather it is the belief that, because men are flawed, no man or group of men can be trusted with a monopoly on law enforcement.  Thus, Tucker wrote that anarchists

are simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats.  They believe that “the best government is that which governs least,” and that that which governs least is no government at all.  Even the simple police function of protecting person and property they deny to governments supported by compulsory taxation.  Protection they look upon as a thing to be secured, as long as it is necessary, by voluntary association and cooperation for self-defence, or as a commodity to be purchased, like any other commodity, of those who offer the best article at the lowest price.  In their view it is in itself an invasion of the individual to compel him to pay for or suffer a protection against invasion that he has not asked for and does not desire.8

It should come as no surprise if anarchists appreciate the message in Minority Report.  But, even those who believe we should keep some sort of state system around can find in Minority Report an important message about society and political power.

The whole reason states are justified, according to those who actually defend the existence of states, is to secure and defend the natural rights of the individual.  But the reality of statism is something much more sinister.  Humans are not angels, and as all states are organised and run by humans, all states run the risk of diverting their attention away from the noble defence of natural law and human liberty, and instead toward such things as security and power—even constitutional republics.  As the libertarian Lord Acton presciently put it, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The security state is a clear threat to everyone.  Or, as Dr. Friedman puts it, “Minority Report offers a sobering scenario of how dangerous it is to exchange individual freedoms for governmental assurances.”9  Yet, many people in first-world countries have a tendency to believe in the mantra, it couldn’t happen here.

What satires like Minority Report do is help us to see that it is already happening.  And it shows us this by drawing comparisons—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt—between the present state of affairs and that of a futuristic dystopia built on what clearly are present-day trends.  People tend not to notice the authoritarian features of their own political system for the same reason a frog does not notice when heat slowly increases in the pan beneath his feet.  Thus, the role that Minority Report serves is to show us how hot the pan can become…hopefully, before it becomes too late to reverse the liberticidal trends.


1 George Orwell, “George Orwell’s Defense of His Novel,” in Bloom’s Guides: George Orwell’s 1984 (New York, N. Y.: Chelsea House, 2004), p. 44.

2 Lester D. Friedman, Citizen Spielberg (University of Illinois Press, 2006), p. 46.

3 Stephen W. Carson, “Films on Liberty and the State.”

4 Friedman, p. 54.

5 Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussions, and Film Selections, ed. Richard Fumerton and Diane Jeske (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010), p. 6.

6 Ibid., p. 7.

7 Robert Barnes, “Minority Report: A Review.”

8 Benjamin R. Tucker, “State Socialism and Anarchism.”

9 Friedman, p. 51.