I Prefer Security to Freedom


Clichés of Progressivism, Part 12

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 20–25 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.


  • 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.

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

Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.