Liberty and Safety

Benjamin Franklin is often cited as the source of the observation, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Despite the fact that there is some dispute as to the origin of the quote, it remains a marvelously malleable remark, able to assume various meanings suitable for buttressing different political points.

Civil libertarians can call upon Franklin to support the argument that government should be hobbled in its intrusiveness even if by doing so may make the life of criminals a little easier. Those in favor a military force to fight forces of oppression can use Franklin to weigh on the side of liberty as opposed to the safety of acquiescence .

Nonetheless, there really is a balance between liberty and safety that must be struck. We are constantly told by our friends on the Left that the Patriot Act is poor trade off between safety and liberty. We put this argument off to another time, but point out here that there is another liberty and safety trade off that is at the heart of Conservative political philosophy: the balance between safety and economic liberty.

Civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, freedom of association, and privacy are defining elements of a free society, however, in terms of day-to-day activities, it is through economic freedom that we exercise control over our own lives. The economic resources at our disposal allow us to decide where to live, where to travel, what to eat, and what clothing to wear. Economic resources empower us to make the myriad of small choices that define how we live our lives. I may cherish my freedom of speech, but I enjoy economic freedom daily. To understand the importance of economic freedom just ask yourself if you had 10% greater or 10% fewer economic resources at your disposal how would the scope of your personal choices increase or decrease.

What Conservatives understand intuitively and what Liberals need to learn is that when people are taxed to provide resources for the state to ameliorate social problems, they are doing so at the cost of personal economic freedom. Just as some might exaggerate external threats to argue for reductions in civil liberties, others might exaggerate social problems to make the case for the reduction of economic liberty.

This is not to conclude that there ought not be any social programs or any government spending. Rather, it is to argue that we recognize that taxation entails a very real reduction of personal liberty. For Conservatives, the balance between taxation and the government modulation of the vagaries of a dynamic economy is tipped a little more to the side of economic freedom. We can steal from Franklin and assert “They that can give up economic freedom to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither freedom nor safety.”

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