Any time an argument comes up about civil liberties versus government security, you’ll find this quote from Benjamin Franklin:

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

It’s a brilliant quote, but really, it’s meaningless. In fact, it’s a brilliant quote because it’s meaningless. It begs the question (in the classical sense) because the only thing it argues is that if the arguer is already right, then their argument is right.

Hrm, sorry, let me back up.

Liberty versus security is a tradeoff. Everyone recognizes that; nobody argues that people should have infinite liberty or that the government should have infinite power to enforce security. Arguments about liberty vs. security aren’t about black and white generalities, but about specific tradeoffs:

  • Is it better to let the NSA snoop on our web traffic to help catch bad guys, or is it better to let people use the internet without fear of being monitored?
  • Is it better to let the FBI unlock phones from suspects, or is it better to let people keep the contents of their phones private if they choose?
  • Is it better for the government to have ways to decrypt personal data, or is it better to let people encrypt their data using algorithms that are unfeasible to break?

In each of those cases, you could apply the word ‘essential’ to either side of the argument. It’s essential that the NSA be able to snoop on traffic; it’s essential to let people use the internet without being monitored. Same goes for ‘temporary’: any security that comes from the FBI unlocking phones is only temporary; the liberty of keeping your phone private is a temporary one.

In other words, the quote just adds a couple of adjectives to the sides of the discussion that the arguer prefers, and then wraps the whole thing up in a pithy, memorable sentence. If you want to argue the other side, you can just reverse the adjectives:

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

This is what begging the question originally meant: to make a statement in support of an argument that is only true if the arguer is already correct. Which makes it a wonderful use of rhetoric–at least, if you’re Benjamin Franklin, arguing over a tax dispute with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which was the original context of the quote.

So the next time someone whips out this old mathom of a quote and tries to shout you down by quoting a Founding Father, just tell them: “hey, asshat, all you’re doing is begging the question.” They’ll spend so much time trying to figure out whether you properly used begging the question that you’ll win the argument by default.

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