Letter from Pennsylvania: Liberty, Safety and Real ID

Colin McNickle
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Posted: May 10, 2017 1:01 PM
Letter from Pennsylvania: Liberty, Safety and Real ID

Scholars of America’s Founding long have argued that one of Benjamin Franklin’s most famous quotes routinely is twisted from its original intent. For some, that very quote has been front and center in the Pennsylvania debate over adopting federal Real ID standards.

First, the Franklin quote:

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

Those opposing the federal government’s efforts to force a number of holdout states – Pennsylvania among them -- to adopt standards it says will strengthen immigration enforcement and homeland security regularly invoke the Franklin quote to protest an ever more intrusive government apparatus.

And, indeed, there are many valid concerns over Real ID and in a number of quarters.

Real ID requires the several states to upgrade their driver’s licenses. Among the “improvements” – photos taken with facial recognition software and the scanning of supporting identification documents – think certified birth certificates and original Social Security cards – into a Department of Motor Vehicles database.

Among the fears: “Secure” government computers that are anything but and an interlinked network of state databases that could – could -- yield a national identity database. To some, this is the equivalent of Stasi or Nazi officers issuing the terror-instilling order of “Papers, please!”

And in its typical approach – no carrot but a large cudgel -- the federal government says states that do not adopt Real ID will see their residents denied access to some accommodations, including air travel.

The Pennsylvania Legislature, facing an early June federal deadline, is working on a hybrid measure that would allow those wanting Real ID to have it, but pay the full cost for the issuance of such driver’s licenses, and allow those who don’t want to participate the right to opt out. Whether that will pass federal muster remains to be seen; few think it will.

Some have railed at the state Legislature for its tardiness in addressing the issue. They think it’s reprehensible that their punting or half-acting legislature essentially would force them to buy an expensive passport to travel within the United States.

Critics say those complainants can’t see the liberty lost for the convenience they seek. And they roundly resist this latest federal encroachment. 

Among them, Pennsylvania Rep. Frank Ryan, a Lebanon County Republican, who grudgingly supports the legislation wending its way through Harrisburg.

“We don’t work for the crown, the crown of Washington, D.C.,” he toldcityandstatepa.com. “We won that battle in the 1700s.

“This bill is a sad commentary that we have to make reasonable accommodations to those people that don’t wish to participate in a system that’s been mandated by a master 250 miles away,” Ryan told the website.

Indeed, it is.

Back to ol’ Ben Franklin’s quote:

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

Of course, the quote dovetails nicely with the argument against Real ID. But its conscription for this contemporary debate (and many others similar) does not comport with its original meaning in context. Or so says Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes.

He told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in March 2015 that Franklin’s words were written in “a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the family of the Penns, the proprietary family of the Pennsylvania family who ruled from afar.”

“(T)he Legislature was trying to tax the Penn family lands to pay for frontier defense during the French and Indian War. And the Penn family kept instructing the governor to veto. Franklin felt that this was a great affront to the ability of the Legislature to govern,” Wittes told NPR’s Robert Siegel.

“(S)o (Franklin) actually meant purchase a little safety literally. The Penn family was trying to give a lump sum of money in exchange for the General Assembly’s acknowledging that it did not have the authority to tax it.”

Wittes contends the Franklin’s quote “defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security.”

That is, Franklin was concerned about the ability to defend frontier towns from raids; “he regarded the ability of a community to defend itself as the essential liberty (and) that it would be contemptible to trade,” Wittes said.

That said, Wittes does concede this salient point:

“(M)aybe it doesn’t matter so much what Franklin was actually trying to say because the quotation means so much to us in terms of the tension between government power and individual liberties.”

Perhaps twisted. But still applicable. As the Pennsylvania debate over Real ID certainly shows.