Here’s an interesting historical fact I have dug up in some research for an essay I am writing about the relationship between liberty and security: That famous quote by Benjamin Franklin that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” does not mean what it seems to say. Not at all.
I started looking into this quotation because I am writing a frontal attack on the idea that liberty and security exist in some kind of “balance” with one another–and the quotation is kind of iconic to the balance thesis. Indeed, Franklin’s are perhaps the most famous words ever written about the relationship. A version of them is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. They are quoted endlessly by those who assert that these two values coexist with one another in a precarious, ever-shifting state of balance that security concerns threaten ever to upset. Every student of American history knows them. And every lover of liberty has heard them and known that they speak to that great truth about the constitution of civilized government–that we empower governments to protect us in a devil’s bargain from which we will lose in the long run.