Opinion: State security measures can protect liberty not just threaten it

Benjamin Franklin, Old Town Hall, Boston (493550)It is an unwritten law of Lib Dem debates on security issues that before long someone will quote Benjamin Franklin that ‘Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’

I have always been intrigued by the origins of this comment, primarily because taken on its own and literally, it is hyperbolic nonsense. Almost any form of government involves some tension between liberty and security. The state provides defence and police forces, but to do so levies taxes and circumscribes individuals’ freedom to use force to defend themselves.

There seems to be very little on the web about what Franklin actually meant. But an academic paper by Benjamin Wittes of Brookings Institute unsurprisingly reveals that Franklin’s aphorism was intended in a very different sense from that in which it is now so often quoted. Franklin wasn’t writing about individual civil liberties, but rather about the right of a legislature to levy taxes.

As Wittes explains it, in 1755 the Pennsylvania Assembly was seeking to levy a tax for frontier defence. The governor kept vetoing this, because the Assembly wanted to tax the absentee Penn family. Franklin’s comment was in the context of the family offering a contribution towards frontier defence in exchange for acceptance that the Assembly had no power to tax them.

Franklin rejected this solution, and in this circumstance what he wrote makes absolute sense. Accepting a voluntary donation towards ‘Safety’ would mean the Assembly giving up its ability (‘liberty’) to tax the Penn family and in so doing compromise its ability to raise money for future security. So it would indeed ‘deserve neither’. But the principle of the state using coercive powers (taxation) to provide for safety was not at issue.

I won’t discuss at length here Wittes’ detailed argument for seeing security and freedom as in ‘hostile symbiosis’, rather than ‘crude balance’, as this would take me way beyond the LDV word count. But in a democracy, security measures can legitimately be put forward as a way of defending freedom rather than simply restricting it.

The most extreme example of this is during wartime, when measures such as press censorship, conscription of citizens and internment without trail of enemy sympathisers have been introduced. At one level these are restrictions on freedom in the name of security. But in a war between a democracy and a dictatorship, the calculation is also that victory for the latter is a far bigger threat to liberty than short-term security measures carried out by the former.

To give a more current example, although I baulk sometimes about the officiousness of airport security measures, as a nervous flyer I find they increase my confidence that the aeroplane will arrive safely at its intended destination and hence enhance my freedom to travel.

In judging security issues, Liberals are rightly wary of the extent to which government measures threaten our civil liberties. But we should also remember that effective security is necessary to protect liberty.

Photo of Benjamin Franklin statue at the Old Town Hall, Boston, USA by Robert Linsdell

* Iain Sharpe has been a Liberal Democrat councillor in Watford since 1991. To read more about the history of the Liberal Democrats in Watford, see Winning the Watford Way, published by the Local Government Association Liberal Democrat Group.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Dean 11th Jul '14 - 3:31pm

    An excellent article. The relevance of the words of Franklin and other ancients is always questionable when transferred from historical contexts to modern ones. I am glad of those airport security checks.

  • Jayne Mansfield 11th Jul '14 - 5:52pm

    A really interesting and informative article.

    I suppose we must continue to vote for the party that strikes the most sensible position between the competing tensions.

  • David Allen 11th Jul '14 - 6:12pm

    Yes, interesting article. Arguably, those who oppose the emergency measures should put less emphasis on restricting state security measures, but more emphasis on bringing in a powerful and well-funded system of independent oversight to make sure that state powers are not misused.

    That would be complicated, and would take time. I suspect that the emergency approach (shock doctrine) is designed to make sure that there isn’t time, and so the eventual outcome will be a win for the security people, who will be able to fight off any reduction in their powers or any annoying independent oversight of their powers. Not giving people time to work out how to organise an independent oversight system is no doubt all part of the plan.

  • Brilliant article. I’ve never understood the popularity of this palpably absurd (when taken out of context) aphorism.

  • Richard Harris 12th Jul '14 - 7:24am

    What on earth does feeling more confident about flying due to more security checks have to do with my personal data being collected by central government? A very poor analogy. Presumably I can be persuaded that the free press should be entitled to listen in on my phone calls because the Food Standards Agency has just increased the standard to which milk should be heated in the pasteurisation of milk? As the latter makes me feel safer, so should the former. What?

  • James Baker 12th Jul '14 - 7:45am

    Thanks an interesting bit of history behind the saying. Personally my biggest issue with the aphorism is that it helps perpetrate the notion that liberty and security are always in balance – That increasing security will mean a restriction of liberty, and that a restriction of liberty will increase security.

    For example adherence to universal principles of liberty, international law and human rights can increase our security as it creates safeguards against tyrants (big or small) trying to take away our liberty. It’s also possible to bring in new security measures that don’t threaten our freedoms and liberty.

    So it’s unfortunate the new emergency surveillance powers proposed by Nick Clegg and the government don’t both increase liberty and security, and that he has fallen for this trap that there need be some sacrifice of liberty to achieve security.

    It would have been possible to create new UK laws that allow us to tackle serious cases in adherence to the ECJ ruling of 8th April on the EU data retention directive, whilst also safeguarding against the misuse of surveillance powers that threatens the security of individuals. Instead we are proposing to give future Home Secretaries sweeping new powers to create more surveillance through retention orders brought in via Statutory Instruments.

  • Will the emergency measures stop a future #10 putting a Coulson or a Morrison into a position of responsibility? Let the State use the powers it already had legally correctly before expanding them.

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