Benjamin Franklin’s famous one-liner about the relationship between liberty and safety has intrigued me since I first read it in high school. Why would anyone sacrifice personal liberty? And how does that sacrifice equate to temporary safety?
When Franklin uttered these lines, folks in the colonies were contemplating a war of secession from England. At the time of that contemplation, according to the late Harvard Professor Bernard Bailyn, about one-third of the adult white males preferred secession, about one-third preferred staying subjugated to the king and Parliament, and about one-third were undecided.
From our advantage of hindsight, it is almost inconceivable that any rational person could have been undecided. But that was then, and this is now.
Franklin and his colleagues — Thomas Jefferson foremost among them — argued that personal liberty is natural to humanity and sacrificing it does not produce safety. Who will keep our liberties safe, Jefferson once asked.
The history of the world is the chronicle of liberty against safety. Safety is the excuse given by tyrants when they take freedom by compelling or prohibiting or intruding.
From George III and his Stamp Act of 1765, which resulted in British agents searching colonial homes without individualized suspicion, to George W. Bush and his Patriot Act of 2001, which enabled one federal agent to authorize another to search without any warrants in defiance of the Constitution, tyrants have consistently claimed “safety” as the excuse and purported benefit of trampling liberty.
In both 1765 and 2001, the liberty sacrificed was the right to privacy — the right to be left alone.
We all lived through the government theft of liberty three years ago, during the Covid scare. Government, without lawful authority or personal consent, stole liberty, promised safety and delivered neither. It basically conducted a dry run for its next takeover of our once-free society by scaring the daylights out of folks.
It frightened so many people that they willingly gave up essential liberty. It was government at its worst. And because enough people caved, the government got away with it.
Jefferson bolstered Franklin’s simple one-liner by his glorious language in the Declaration of Independence asserting we are endowed by our “Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” If our rights are inalienable, then they derive from our humanity, which is a gift of the Creator. And if they derive from our humanity, how can government take them away? Morally, it cannot do so unless we give up those rights.
It was against this caving into government’s seduction, induced by fear, that Franklin and Jefferson warned. Fortunately, their warnings were heeded. Even though the Revolutionary War was supported by a minority, it did rid America of a tyrant — until we elected our own.
Giving up rights is an individual personal choice. You can give up your own rights to a government promising safety, but you cannot give up mine.
Yet, government thrives on seizing liberty and property. It seizes liberty by enacting so many criminal laws — 5,500 by the last count in the federal system alone — that no one, least of all the governed, knows and can understand them all. It seizes property by taxation. To the big government types in both major political parties, taxation is just, and thus, more taxation is more just. To those who understand with Franklin and Jefferson that our rights are natural and our property is ours, this “just” and “more just” argument is rubbish.
I offer this brief historical and philosophical background so as to address the recent phenomena of government coercing private entities into surrendering their rights. Last week, Forbes Media reported that the Biden administration has been coercing TikTok, the fabulously successful social media app owned by the Chinese corporation ByteDance, into surrendering access to its records and operations systems under the guise of — you guessed it — safety.
The government claims that TikTok enables the Chinese government to spy on the public social media of its American users and the federal government aims to keep us safe from that.
Even if that is true, when folks post anything on public social media, they are giving up their own — not yours or mine — privacy rights in what they have posted. But, because President Joe Biden wants to appear tough on the Chinese in his fanciful reelection campaign, his bureaucrats have gotten tough with TikTok.
Why would TikTok cave to this? Its operating systems are private, proprietary and none of the government’s business. Answer: fear that the feds will shut TikTok down in the name of safety. What will the feds do with the algorithms and software that TikTok will surrender? They will use them to spy on us, the very same ugly deeds that they are accusing TikTok of doing.
But when TikTok spies, it is capturing what you have given it. If it captures private data you did not release, you can sue it for computer hacking. When the feds spy, they need a warrant. But don’t expect them to get one. They already spy on all of us all the time, thanks to Bush’s amendments to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and his Patriot Act. How well have they kept us safe?
We have reposed the Constitution into the hands of those who have subverted it. Their subversions have protected only their own power. They have upheld neither our liberty nor our safety.