The correct version of Benjamin Franklin’s most famous quote

There are few statements that exemplify the American spirit more than the following quote of Benjamin Franklin:

“Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security.”

However, this is not the correct quote; what he actually said was:

“They who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Which is actually quite different. I believe this misquotation has led to the development of many excessive and insufferable American cultural norms in the 20th and 21st century.

First, many people quote Franklin to defend an otherwise indefensible position. For instance, the very notion that liberty can exist without security is ludicrous. The reason why ‘liberty’ doesn’t exist in many parts of the world is that a lot of people don’t have access to basic things like food, water, sanitation, shelter, and basic personal security. When survival is difficult that becomes your principal concern; all other lofty ideals be damned. Indeed one of the key features of the incredible advancement of civilization in the last three thousand years lies in the increasingly sophisticated ways we organize ourselves; advancing from small family groups to family based clans, then to tribal societies, and finally to nations. Without sacrificing some aspect of our individuality to better accommodate the group, we’d still be vying for a non-crappy spot on the food chain, much less become intelligent enough to discuss the concept of ‘liberty’.

Second, the Americans that tout this quote often forget how high of a price must be paid to ensure that Americans enjoy their liberty, and how to provide the security necessary for Americans to live free lives, it sometimes is necessary to take it away from other people. The CIA orchestrated the assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende, paving the way for Augusto Pinochet’s junta, because Allende dared to be elected as a socialist in a South American state. A similar story happened in Iran, where a coup orchestrated by the CIA toppled the democratically elected government led by Mohammad Mosaddegh, paving the way for 20 years of dictatorship and bad government led by the Shah then an indefinite time by the current Islamist regime. American liberty is paid for by the security and liberty of non-Americans.

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