Up Front

Would Ben Franklin Trade Liberty for Wiretapping?

Benjamin Wittes

Two years ago, I wrote a brief blog post about Ben Franklin’s iconic quote on the relationship between liberty and security:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.


The post detailed research I was doing for a Brookings paper, published later in 2011, on the liberty-security relations seen through the lens of, among other things, data mining. The post, which details the rather surprising history and intended meaning of Franklin’s famous words, has had something of a renaissance in the context of the recent NSA wiretapping controversies. It has gone viral. A lot of people seem to be Googling Franklin’s quote this week. And Edward Snowden, the leaker himself, invoked the words in one of his interviews:

Snowden challenged this, saying the problem was that the Obama administration had denied society the chance to have that discussion. He disputed that there had to be a trade-off between security and privacy, describing the very idea of a trade-off as a fundamental assault on the US constitution.

In what were to be the last words of the interview, he quoted Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

The history of the quotation is, indeed, interesting; it actually does not mean what people (including Snowden) use it to mean. The larger paper, however, is worth reintroducing too in the context of the current conversation about the NSA’s data-mining programs. It is a broad examination of the relationship between security and liberty—and an attack on the idea that the two exist in some sort of “balance” in which a gain in one will tend to come at the expense of the other. It proposes a different way to think about this relationship—one based on an old text of evolutionary biology: the idea of a “hostile symbiosis.” And it proposed categories of surveillance that might even enhance, rather than erode, liberty.

And not only does it, like the blog post, detail the history of that famous Franklin quotation, it also gives the surprising history of Justice Robert Jackson’s famous warning about turning the Bill of Rights into a “suicide pact.”