Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. This is a quote that you have probably heard said in the context of governmental intrusion of some sort. It is used out of context and evolved into its own meaning. That new meaning is one that we should lend some credence to. It’s important to understand what the terms in this quote mean in today’s world. What is essential liberty? How much safety do we need to function as a society? What is the relationship between liberty and safety? The answer to the last question may surprise you.
What is Essential Liberty?
When Ben Franklin wrote about essential liberty, he was writing about the power to self-govern. This was during the time of great unrest on the frontier. Self-governance was a relatively new concept. To Franklin, self-governance needed to succeed and was vital for his ultimate survival. While self-governance is still cherished by us, it is no longer a new concept. We have advanced as a country to a point where we have established civil liberties and rights. Our country has matured to a point well past Ben Franklin’s imagination. With that maturity, has come an extension in what consider essential to us. Any infringement on our civil liberties and rights should not be taken lightly. Yet, it seems all too likely that we are willing to give up some of these in exchange for security.
How Much Safety Do We Need?
So how much security is enough security? Of course, no reasonable person wants terrorist acts, no rule of law, and chaos. Yet, we also do not want an authoritarian regime. So, what is the happy medium between lawlessness and a society where we have no rights? There are freedoms that the Constitution establishes as protections from the government such as the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to bear arms. These are our civil liberties. Then there are freedoms that the Constitution forces the government to establish like the guarantee of equal protection under the law as per the Fourteenth Amendment. These are our civil rights. We, as citizens, should not tolerate an infringement on these established freedoms. For each encroachment we allow is an erosion on the accomplishments of our nation.
What is a Good Balance?
The magician, Penn Jillette once said, “every time something really bad happens, people cry out for safety, and the government answers by taking away rights from good people.” The balance between security and freedom is a zero-sum game. The more freedom that you want, the less security you will have — and vice versa. If we want to have the right to bear arms, then we must reasonably accept that violence committed with these weapons. If we want the freedom of speech, then we must accept that someone may publish material that in the wrong hands could harm us. If we want the freedom to not be searched without cause, then we must accept that some criminals may get away. We will never have a perfectly safe society. So, why expend our freedom when it only provides the illusion of safety?
Given that our nation has fought tirelessly for our freedom, shouldn’t it be our duty to fight to retain it? Bad things will happen. Do not let this be a justification for sacrificing your or someone else’s rights. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” When bad things do happen, help your fellow brethren out. Don’t demand that the government provide you your safety. That is how we lose our freedom. Freedom is the cost of security.