The Real Candidates for Office: Liberty vs. Safety

On a stone pillar near the top of the steps ascending toward the Pennsylvania State Capitol is inscribed the following quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

While “liberty” and “safety” are admittedly rather broad terms, both words have distinct meaning in the context of contemporary Pennsylvania public policy debates. Those who favor “liberty” generally argue that state government should be limited in scope to its constitutional role as guarantor of citizens’ rights, arbiter of disputes, and protector of private property. They promote the private, voluntary association of citizens to address common problems and believe in the superiority of the free market to generate economic prosperity.

Those who advocate “safety,” on the other hand, generally believe that government should expand its scope to become a primary provider of essential services, regulator of citizens’ daily lives, and manager and central planner of the state’s economy.

In the wake of Pennsylvania’s May 16 primary election results, Franklin’s words are especially meaningful. The election was not just a competition within the Democrat and Republican parties. Indeed, the real candidates in many key legislative races were “liberty” and “safety”—and the outcomes of those races illustrate the philosophical divide that exists in Pennsylvania.

The desire to reclaim liberty was a major factor animating many of the challengers to Pennsylvania legislative incumbents. It also accounts, to a great degree, for the defeat of 17 of those incumbents. Voters were justifiably angry over repeated assaults on their liberty: last July’s pay raise vote, the “go-along-to-get-along” Harrisburg mentality that allows liberty-contracting legislation to pass with regularity, the lavish lifestyles of many legislators, and, most importantly, the rapid growth of state government and loss of economic and personal freedom.

These issues spurred the defeat of member after member—including Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer (R-Blair) and Senate Majority Leader Chip Brightbill (R-Lebanon). These two top Senate leaders, in particular, were punished for failing to guard their constituents’ economic and personal liberty from Gov. Ed Rendell’s “tax-borrow-spend-and-regulate” agenda, while their challengers promised to work to restore that liberty if victorious in the general election.

Not all Pennsylvanians cast their primary votes for “liberty,” however. In the majority of contested Pennsylvania legislative primary races, the incumbent emerged victorious—and a number of those incumbents were unapologetic advocates of greater “safety” through ever-expanding government programs and higher taxes. Perhaps the loudest voice in favor of the status quo in Harrisburg belonged to House Minority Whip Mike Veon (D-Beaver).

Rep. Veon, the only member of the General Assembly to vote against repeal of the pay raise last November, was unapologetic about his actions and asked voters to judge his “full record” of nearly 22 years in the House—a record that consists mainly of lockstep support of initiatives favored by labor unions and channeling state tax dollars to his economically depressed district. Rep. Veon’s primary opponent, on the other hand, opposed the pay raise, argued that the state-funded “economic development” aid secured by Rep. Veon had not benefited the entire district, and that the private sector has an important role to play in a successful economic development strategy.

In the end, Rep. Veon triumphed by a comfortable margin—albeit after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many of his supporters made it clear that the perceived “safety” his continued presence in Harrisburg promised was the main reason for his victory. One Veon supporter and local borough councilman argued that “A change would hurt us because Mike has clout in Harrisburg to do things where a new guy wouldn’t have that clout.” Another—a member of a public employee labor union—opined, “I think Mike has done a lot for working people.… He’s out there fighting for our issues, like minimum wage, and look at who’s supporting [his opponent]—big business—which doesn’t support an increase in the minimum wage.” Finally, there was this blunt assessment: “If Mike had lost re-election, we could have just put gates up in Beaver Falls from one end to the other and say it’s closed.”

“Liberty” won a number of important battles in Pennsylvania on May 16—but “safety” remains a dangerous foe that has no intention of surrendering quietly. It’s for that reason that the modern-day heirs of Benjamin Franklin must continue the fight to persuade their fellow Pennsylvanians that liberty is the only true guarantee of safety.

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Grant R. Gulibon is a Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute located in Harrisburg, PA.