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Friday, July 4, 2014

#12 – “I Prefer Security to Freedom”

(Editor’s note: This essay, minus some slight edits for updating, was originally published in the1962 FEE book Clichés of Socialism.)


The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government.

Our society is inundated with half-truths and misconceptions about the economy in general and free enterprise in particular. The “Clichés of Progressivism” series is meant to equip students with the arguments necessary to inform debate and correct the record where bias and errors abound.

The antecedents to this collection are two classic FEE publications that YAF helped distribute in the past: Clichés of Politics, published in 1994, and the more influential Clichés of Socialism, which made its first appearance in 1962. Indeed, this new collection will contain a number of essays from those two earlier works, updated for the present day where necessary. Other entries first appeared in some version in FEE’s journal, The Freeman. Still others are brand new, never having appeared in print anywhere. They will be published weekly on the websites of both YAF and FEE: and until the series runs its course. A book will then be released in 2015 featuring the best of the essays, and will be widely distributed in schools and on college campuses.

See the index of the published chapters here.


#12 – “I Prefer Security to Freedom”

Many people wander unwittingly into socialism, gulled by assumptions they have not tested. One popular but misleading assumption is that security and freedom are mutually exclusive alternatives—that to choose one is to forego the other.

In the United States during the past century, more people achieved greater material security than their ancestors had ever known in any previous society. Large numbers of people in this country accumulated a comfortable nest egg, so that “come hell or high water”—depressions, old age, sickness, or whatever—they could rely on the saved fruits of their own labor (and/or that of family members, friends, or parishioners) to carry them through any storm or temporary setback. By reason of unprecedented freedom of choice, unparalleled opportunities, provident living, and the right to the fruits of their own labor—private property—they were able to meet the many exigencies that arise in the course of a lifetime.

We think of these enviable, personal achievements as security. But this type of security is not an alternative to freedom; rather, it is an outgrowth of freedom. This traditional security stems from freedom as the oak from an acorn. It is not a case of either/or; one without the other is impossible. Freedom sets the stage for all the security available in this uncertain world.

Security in its traditional sense, however, is not what the progressives are talking about when they ask, “Wouldn’t you rather have security than freedom?” They have in mind what Maxwell Anderson called “the guaranteed life,” or the arrangement described by Karl Marx, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Under this dispensation, the political apparatus, having nothing at its disposal except the police force, uses this force to take the property of the more well-to-do in order to dispense the loot among the less well-to-do. In theory, at least, that’s all there is to it—a leveling procedure!

Admittedly, this procedure appears to attract millions of our fellow citizens. It relieves them, they assume, of the necessity of looking after themselves; Uncle Sam is standing by with bags of forcibly collected largess.

To the unwary, this looks like a choice between security and freedom. But, in fact, it is the choice between the self-responsibility of a free man or the slave-like security of a ward of the government. Thus, if a person were to say, “I prefer being a ward of the government to exercising the personal practice of freedom,” he would at least be stating the alternatives in correct terms.

One need not be a profound sociologist to realize that the ward-of-the-government type of “security” does preclude freedom for all three parties involved. Those from whom their property is taken obviously are denied the freedom to use what they’ve earned from their labor. Secondly, people to whom the property is given—who get something for nothing—are forfeiting the most important reason for living: the freedom to be responsible for oneself. The third party in this setup—the authoritarian who does the taking and the giving—also loses his freedom.

Nor need one be a skilled economist to understand how the guaranteed life leads to general insecurity. Whenever government assumes responsibility for the security, welfare, and prosperity of citizens, the costs of government rise beyond the point where it is politically expedient to cover them by direct tax levies. At this point—usually 2025 percent of the people’s earned income—the government resorts to deficit financing and inflation. Inflation—increasing the volume of the money supply to cover deficits—means a dilution of the money’s purchasing power. Unless arrested by a change in thinking and in policy, this process leads to all “guarantees” becoming worthless, and a general insecurity follows.

The true and realistic alternatives are insecurity or security. Insecurity must follow the transfer of responsibility from self to others, particularly when transferred to arbitrary and capricious government. Genuine security is a matter of self-responsibility, based on the right to the fruits of one’s own labor and the freedom to trade.


Leonard E. Read

Founder and President
Foundation for Economic Education, 19461983



  • True security is an outgrowth of freedom, not an alternative to it.
  • Being dependent, instead of being independent, is a move away from true security.
  • Read’s observation more than half a century ago that increasing reliance on a welfare state for security would produce financial problems seems positively prescient today. Consider our $17.5 trillion national debt as evidence.
  • The real choice is not between freedom and security but between security and insecurity.
  • For further information, see these articles:

“Victims of Social Leveling” by Leonard E. Read:

“Big Government—Big Risk” by David R. Henderson:

“Freedom vs. Security: The False Alternative” by Noah Stahl:

“Liberty or Security?” by Bas Van Der Vossen:

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”