An engraving of Benjamin Franklin's kite experiment, from page 159 (Fig. 82) of Natural Philosophy for Common and High Schools (1881) by Le Roy C. Cooley
You've seen it a million times in debates about security and liberty.
There is it, that Benjamin Franklin quotation, either posted with dewy-eyed naivite by someone who thinks they're the first to discover it and will be oh-so-appreciated.
Or wielded with heavy cynical and malicious glee by somebody who thinks they've trumped your every effort to insist on at least some sort of law and oversight over the unaccountable radicals of the Internet who have seized the "Internet freedom" banner.
I sometimes wonder when I see the old chestnut being roasted on the open-source fire what the real context was in real history.
Obviously, if the real historical figure Ben Franklin were to see what the notion was of "liberty" that was supposed to trump the "security" that he himself supposedly didn't think was worth preserving, he'd be terrified.
Wouldn't any figure of that era who was just beginning to experiment with electricity, who still wrote on paper with a quill pen by candle light, find it terrifying that there was a machine called "the Internet" that could track people all the time and to which they reported faithfully with updates constantly about their every thought and movement, which the government was trying to see into in order to deal with specific crimes caused by those exploiting this machine, but whose most extreme boosters were trying to make invisible?
Of course, what a lot of people wielding this quotation mean by "liberty" is licentiousness or anarchy of the "fuck-you hedonism" kind or even criminality without any regard for any other people and their rights -- anything goes. And what they mean by unacceptable "security" for the sake of which we shouldn't part with that anarchy is often just normal law-enforcement activity of the sort accepted even by these goons in the offline analogue world.
But what did Ben Franklin actually say, and what did he mean by it?
Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a discussion on this which is helpful (so often they aren't):
franklin: liberty/ security
“Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" is, I believe, the correct quote but it is often quoted as, "Who give up liberty for safety, deserve neither."
This expression seems to have mutated over time. Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989) cites it as:
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
Benjamin Franklin, "Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor", November 11, 1755; as cited in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 6, p. 242, Leonard W. Labaree, ed. (1963)
It shows up four years later in a slightly different form, according to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (1919):
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania (1759); included in the work and displayed as the motto of the work, according to Rise of the Republic of the United States, p. 413, Richard Frothingham (1873)
Back to Respectfully Quoted, we find yet another version inscribed in a famous monument:
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Benjamin Franklin; stairwell plaque in the Statue of Liberty
It's possible that Franklin said this in different ways at earlier times, but so far, the 1755 letter is the earliest source I've found. ~ Jeff Q (talk) 04:14, 19 April 2006 (UTC)
Those that are willing to give up a little temporary safety for essential liberty are not going to get much of either safety or liberty. - Myself
And note what the anonymous Wikipedia editor does -- he inverts the quote in scorn of those invoking this quote all the time. Good!
Those qualifications -- essential liberty and temporary safety -- seem awfully important.
So "essential liberty" is in fact not tampered with by a TSA man's pat-down because you refused to go through the metal detector. Seriously.
CISPA does not require giving up essential liberty and the safety gained by enabling sharing between government and platform providers to fend off cyber-attacks isn't temporary, but ongoing.
What would be the essential liberty than Franklin meant that would have won only temporary safety?
The context was when the states were not yet free, and were part of the British empire, and were seeking freedom from the British empire which was a monarchy then. A very different situation than today.
Some of the less Marxist-indoctrinated teachers in the discussions here are helpful in understanding the real context -- which wasn't about 9/11, and wasn't about massive terrorist killings and the problem of trying to catch terrorists at all, but was in a very different historical context, whereby some people were willing to put up with the monarchy and not meet the list of demands for more freedom, and others weren't, because this would protect them from other enemies at the time.
You can also read on that page at ask.com the entire quote, in its context, which talks about the problem of scattered people on a frontier trying to defend it without sufficient arms and ammunition, against "insiduous Attacks of small Parties of skulking Murderers".
It doesn't sound as if Ben Franklin somehow saw attacks by small partiers of "skulking Murderers" to be something that wasn't a legitimate security threat, or that it was somehow inappropriate to take up arms against them. Rather, the argument was how best to do that.
I read these historical passages to boil down to this: Franklin was urging that the colonies be able to defend themselves freely against attackers, rather than accepting the defense that came from the King -- which wasn't working. He wasn't saying that the threat of attack wasn't real, or was exaggerated; he not only conceded it but it was what was driving his whole discussion.
That works out to be an entirely different concept than the way this quote is usually manipulated -- to mean that we should jettison any security or defense or law-enforcement to stop parties of skulking murderers (terrorists, hackers, griefers) because if we fight them, we will ostensibly place a "chill" on free expression.
The full quotation, in its context: