Balancing safety and liberty

Every year at this time, I invariably think of the Founding Fathers. Moreover, it is very easy for Benjamin Franklin to be one of the first who comes to mind.

Franklin – a publisher, legislator, scientist, ambassador and more – was on the committee that drafted our Declaration of Independence.

We also remember Franklin very well for his proverbs.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. 

God gives all things to industry.

There are no gains without pains.

He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas. 

And, my personal favorite:

You may give the man an office, but you cannot give him discretion.

These are just some of the maxims attributed to him found on the pages of his Poor Richard’s Almanack

However, also attributed to him is a saying we regularly return to when we want to discuss the balance between freedom and security: Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

In 2011, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, did his best Inigo Montoya impersonation at explaining away why this saying is not really a testimony to the “devil’s bargain” between constitutional government and anarchy. 

“Franklin was not describing some tension between government power and individual liberty,” Wittes noted. “He was describing, rather, effective self-government in the service of security as the very liberty it would be contemptible to trade.”

You should read Wittes’ whole blog post, “What Ben Franklin Really Said,” via It is not long and offers an interesting look into colonial politics in the mid-1750s. Franklin’s words still resonate very clearly when one chooses to see them through a civil libertarian lens.

With the recent tragedy in Virginia Beach, the upcoming special General Assembly session on gun control, threats of “domestic” terrorism at our public gatherings and our annual veneration of the Declaration of Independence, now does seem as good a time as any to chew on this idea again: Is liberty and security an “either/or” proposition?

Honestly, this discussion is as old as mankind, and so that should readily point us to the answer: No. It is not an even exchange.

If you think otherwise, one needs only to open the Bible to the Book of Exodus. And, if you have a different faith, you’ll find other sets of imposed curbs on behavior.

But what is the point of the laws? Are they meant to restrict freedom? If you answer in the affirmative, then you are not considering the alternatives or the net result.

For example, consider “thou shalt not kill.” Clearly, this rule restricts your ability to inject your personal choice over life or death. It gives due process for the accused or protects the innocent and harmless from tyranny. Supposedly.

Or consider having no restrictions on what a property owner can or cannot do with their property. If you live in a community, and one of your neighbors does not act as a good steward of their property, there can be serious consequences to the freedom of others in terms of their own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In other words, the saying “where one person’s freedom ends, another’s begins” — not Franklin’s — is also very true.

Franklin also wrote:

Love thy neighbor, but don’t tear down the hedge.

Ultimately, when making law, the overall net benefit to the community that maximizes freedom while providing the necessary curbs on human nature should be what is most considered.

Independence remains a matter of perspective. You can have too much of a good thing — both in freedom and an overreaching government. Let’s hope we continue to pursue that balance through our constitutional republic for a very long time. 

What kind of government do we have? “A republic, if you can keep it,” as we are still warned by Franklin today. 

And that idea — our shared great experiment — is still worth celebrating.

This column appears in The Princess Anne Independent News