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Liberty and Security - the Most Misunderstood Franklin Quote

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Ben Franklin

This quote drives me crazy because it’s so often misused and misunderstood. Franklin was a man who knew the value of words. He made quite a living peddling wisdom and understood that proverbs such as this one, are closer cousins to poetry than they are to prose in that every word counts.

Unfortunately, we are a society that has lost that understanding. We summarize and condense almost without thinking. For most of us, the quote above becomes “giving up liberty for safety is bad.”

But that is not what Franklin said. He said that those willing to give up ESSENTIAL liberty for a LITTLE, TEMPORARY safety are deserving of neither.

The next time someone throws this quote (or one of the inevitable bastardized and misstated variations of it) first, correct them and state the quote directly and then ask them if the context they’re using it in is appropriate.

Discuss whether the liberty in question is essential.

Second ask whether the proposed security return is both little and temporary.

In my experience, in over 90% of the cases this quote does not apply.

The first time I heard this quote was a teenager complaining that he would be unable to use the toothpaste he wanted at an overnight camp because the camp directors said there were rumors that it could be smoked to become a hallucinogen.

Apply the questions above to this situation and you’ll see that the quote is, at best, a very weak fit.

That’s a common outcome.

Try it and see.