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16 Oct, 27 tweets, 6 min read
Let me rewrite and expand in English a few points in a discussion in French because I think it's interesting. It's about the meaning of the all-too-famous “essential Liberty” vs “temporary safety” quip by Benjamin Franklin. ⤵️ •1/27
The thing is, the aphorism “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” was written (probably!) by Franklin with a meaning rather different from the sense in which it is used nowadays. •2/27
Historical context is provided by Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare in…‌: Franklin's “essential Liberty” is “the right of self-governance of a legislature in the interests of collective security”, not individual freedom, … •3/27
… and conversely, “purchase a little temporary safety” seems to have referred to corruption. So Franklin was opposing collective security with corruption and not, as we generally understand the quote now, individual liberty with the illusion of security. •4/27
So the meaning of the quote has changed enormously. Two key reuses of it may explain this. First, it was cited by F. D. Roosevelt in his “Four Freedoms” (state of the Union) speech on 1941-01-06,…‌, to defend departure from American isolationism. •5/27
Second, in 1943, Friedrich Hayek used it in his book ‘Der Weg zur Knechtschaft’ (translated as ‘The Road to Serfdom’) to criticize centralized planning and state control of the economy, which he argues leads to totalitarianism. •6/27
Roosevelt's use of Franklin's quote is, I believe, fairly close to the original meaning (he is arguing for the right of the Nation to defend itself), even if his “Four Freedoms” context makes it broader in scope, and connects it to the defense of individual freedoms. •7/27
Hayek's use is quite different. But he is careful to preface his quote of Franklin thusly: “The conviction on which liberty in Anglo-Saxon countries has been based and which Benjamin Franklin expressed in a phrase applicable to us as individuals no less than as nations”. •8/27
So it seems to me that Hayek was quite aware that he was using Franklin's words in, again, a different and broader sense, making it about individual rights and not those of nations (as Franklin intended). •9/27
But the use we generally make of the phrase nowadays is neither Franklin's, nor Roosevelt's, nor even Hayek's. I think I've mostly heard it with the meaning that we shouldn't sacrifice fundamental rights in the pursuit of the illusion of security. •10/27
This meaning has been popularized in the context of the ‘War on Terror’ to denounce the curtailing of individual liberties in the fight against terrorism. I don't know exactly who used it first in this sense, or who spread it, but Edward Snowden may have played a part. •11/27
All these four uses of the quotation are different in meaning, but they have one common underlying theme: that we should not sacrifice essential principles for a short-term and perhaps illusory benefit, even if this easier path is tempting. •12/27
(Hayek, much as I dislike the character, states this very eloquently: “It is essential that we should re-learn frankly to face the fact that freedom can be had only at a price and that as individuals we must be prepared to make severe material sacrifices to preserve it.”) •13/27
So I disagree with the assessment that modern use of Franklin's quote is the exact opposite of what Franklin meant. The “security” part of the balance may have switched sides, but methinks the overall theme is still there: the quote has been generalized, not twisted. •14/27
So I think it's fair to say that all later uses of the quote — Roosevelt's, Hayek's and Snowden's, at least — do owe something to Franklin's ideas, and aren't just parroting his words. But, be that as it may: — •15/27
The other issue here is what the “right” meaning of the quote is, or whether this makes any kind of sense. I am not an originalist: I don't think we should allow the meaning of words and thoughts to be frozen in amber. •16/27
Just as all ideas and works of art, text documents exist through the minds of those of us who lend them a place in our brains, and as they live with us, so they also evolve with us, and with our society, and so do their meanings. •17/27
(I'm tempted to say something to the effect that trying to recover the original meaning of words is a bit like trying to step into the same river twice, which of course would be adapting the words and thoughts of Heraclitus to my contemporary needs: precisely the point. •18/27
But of course, I don't intend to say that historians don't have a right and a duty to try to figure out, as precisely as they can, how things where understood in their proper context at the time. Just they shouldn't police the way they are understood now, … •19/27
… any more than we should feel compelled to use, say, a historical building, for the sole purpose for which it was built, or interpret a law only in the narrow sense in which it was conceived at the time. — But back to Ben Franklin.) •20/27
So, Franklin's aphorism is far from the only quote, sentence, phrase, expression, word, or at the other extreme, book (think: the Bible) whose meaning has evolved considerably over time, sometimes to almost opposite of what the original intent was. •21/27
The meaning of language is that commonly understood by sender and receiver, not the etymological or originalist one. I don't mean to say that it's wrong to try to resuscitate original ideas and meanings, but we should do it when they're RELEVANT, not because they're OLD. •22/27
So there is no reason to refrain from using Franklin's adage on liberty and safety even though it's not quite (or perhaps not at all) what Franklin meant when he wrote it, any more than one should refrain from using a quote simply because it's apocryphal. •23/27
(All the best quotes are apocryphal anyway! I am forever inconsolable that Mohandas Gandhi never replied “I think it would be a good idea” upon being asked what he thought of Western civilization, for example. But it's still one of the best quotes, like… ever! •24/27
And Voltaire's famous line about disapproving what you said but fighting to the death for your right to say it is, of course, not by Voltaire, it's by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym of Stephen G. Tallentyre. But it's still maybe the best quote by Voltaire.) •25/27
The relevant question, however, is how we should phrase the citation so as to acknowledge the source of the words and/or ideas, while simultaneously acknowledging that they are being used in a manner that is, even more so than usual, far from the original. •26/27
(Or similarly for apocryphal quotes.) I don't have a precise answer: maybe “using the words and ideas, but stretched to a different context, of Benjamin Franklin, <…>”. The important thing is to try to be honest. (But one way to do this is now to link to this thread. 🙂) •27/27

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More from @gro_tsen

17 Oct
I just watched this video on why England has £1M (“giant”) and £100M (“titan”) banknotes, and I'm left with nothing but questions. •1/14
Their explanation is basically that Scottish and Northern banks are still allowed to print their own notes, but they are required to deposit the same amount at the Bank of England as security, to ensure that these private banknotes keep their value in case of collapse. •2/14
Superficially this makes sense. But the more I think about it, the more absurd and confusing it becomes. First, why store it in paper form and deposit it in high security vaults… at the Bank of England itself? Why not store it electronically? •3/14
Read 14 tweets
18 Sep
Does the value 252 seconds (or 1/2400 week) ring a bell for anyone in the context of GPS? I'm trying to reverse-engineer data written by a GPS device, I was able to make sense of most of the fields, but there's something which seems to be a counter wrapping every 252s. 🤨 •1/8
Context on what I'm trying to do is here: — but not really important here. What's relevant is that I have data from a GPS device and I'm trying to understand its format. I was able to decode most of it (date, time, lat, lon, speed, bearing…), … •2/8
… but a few fields still escape me. Irritatingly, there doesn't seem to be a sub-second timestamp in my data. On the other hand, there's this weird set of values, time counters of sorts, which I'll call: a (4 bytes), b (1 byte) and c (2 bytes) — in this order: … •3/8
Read 8 tweets
1 Sep
Petit complément au fil cité ci-dessous parce que je pense ne pas avoir été assez précis: qu'est-ce qui ne va pas dans le raisonnement «bah, on peut toujours imposer le port du masque à l'extérieur, au pire ça ne sert à rien mais ça ne pas faire de mal»? Explications: 🔽 •1/17
Bon, d'abord, il y a le fait bête que le port du masque est pénible. Je le mentionne en premier parce que ce n'est pas ce dont je veux parler, mais je suis complètement d'accord avec le fil — mais pour le saké de l'argument, faisons comme si non. •2/17
Mettons donc de côté toutes les questions d'inconfort, de gêne respiratoire vraie ou imaginaire, de personnes qui ont besoin de lire sur les lèvres (ou le fait qu'on va devoir inventer une façon de lire les emoji à haute voix puisqu'on ne peut plus sourire en parlant 🙃), •3/17
Read 17 tweets
27 Aug
Le gouvernement français est en mode panique, ne sait absolument pas comment réagir, et choisit de faire n'importe quoi pour donner l'illusion de faire quelque chose d'utile. Quelques commentaires: 🔽 •1/40
Je pense que c'est un mal assez français, ça, quand il y a un problème, de se sentir absolument obligé de prendre des mesures, vite, n'importe lesquelles, parce que la population ne saurait pas s'entendre dire «il n'y a pas grand-chose qu'on puisse faire». •2/40
Du coup, on prend les mesures qu'on arrive à prendre, sans même savoir si elles peuvent servir à quelque chose, parce que c'est ce qu'on sait faire. •3/40
Read 40 tweets
9 Jul
Ce tweet me fait apprendre que le «Grand Paris» a la forme légale d'une «métropole». Mais qu'est-ce qu'une «métropole»? La réponse est tellement compliquée et tarabiscotée que ça ressemble à une blague du #ClubContexte. Un rant, donc. ⤵️ •1/23
Déjà quand on lit le premier paragraphe de l'article Wikipédia «métropole (intercommunalité française)», on se rend compte que ça ne va pas être facile. Apparemment il s'agit d'une forme d'«établissement public de coopération intercommunale». •2/23
Alors on va voir «établissement public de coopération intercommunale» et ça devient encore plus compliqué. Il y a d'un côté «métropoles», «communautés urbaines», «communautés d'agglomération», «communautés de communes», de l'autre «syndicats intercommunaux»… 😣 •3/23
Read 23 tweets
8 May
OK, some more explanations about these curves modelling the attack rate as a function of the variance of infectious contacts, for a given reproduction number (here R₀=2.5), how to read and not to read them: •1/48
I wrote a different thread, ‌, on the mathematics of how they were computed, but let me try to get across some more informal explanations and dispel some misunderstandings. •2/48
This is a very simple, even simplistic, kind of model! It assumes, inter alia, that the dynamics of the epidemic does not change with time (so the reproduction number is a constant), in fact, it doesn't even know about time. … •3/48
Read 48 tweets

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