Men of Prey
OCTOBER 01, 1966 by LEONARD E. READ
The newest and the most radical idea in political history has as its premise, “that all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And then the idea’s implementation: “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men….”
Government’s purpose, in other words, is to curb the oppression, the plundering — exploitation in the sense of being preyed upon—of man by man. These actions which are abusive of man’s rights are to be codified and then posted for all to see (the law); these are the forbidden acts which government must restrain, inhibit, penalize. Let government stand guard against oppression, that is, against violence and/or fraud, and otherwise leave all citizens free to act creatively as they please. This is the American ideal expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
But this inspired ideal has come a cropper. Oppression occurs on an enormous scale, and grows apace. And, contrary to most expectations, the greatest oppressor of all turns out to be the very agency designed to curb oppression! Among the reasons for society’s protector turning predator is a faulty understanding of government’s essential nature.
Woodrow Wilson put his finger on the nature of government: “The essential characteristic of all government, whatever its form, is authority. . . . Government, in its last analysis, is organized force.”1 (Italics mine.)
Observe the distinction between you as an agent of government and you as a private citizen. As an agent of government you have the backing of a constabulary; you issue an edict and I obey or take the consequences. Remove the backing of the constabulary and you are restored to private citizenship; your edict has no more compulsive power than a chamber of commerce resolution. I do as I please. Clearly, the constabulary —organized police force — is government’s distinctive feature.
True, individuals in government service are also private citizens; but, acting in the role of governors, they are set apart from the rest of us by having coercive force at their disposal. A governor is one of us — plus armament.
What is it that armament can and cannot do? It can restrain, inhibit, destroy, penalize. It cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, serve as a creative force. All creativity — no exception — is volitional in origin and is characterized by such spiritual phenomena as invention, discovery, intuition, insight.
What Should Be Restrained?
The above poses the next question: What, in good conscience, should be restrained, inhibited, destroyed, penalized? The answer, in a word, is the oppression of man by men of prey. The moral codes, extending over the millennia, long before Christianity, caution us not to kill and not to steal — that is, not to use violence or fraud. The Bhagavad-Gita is quite explicit: “Sin . . . is the assertion of the independence of the ego which seeks its own private gain at the expense of others.” Organized police force — government —can be properly invoked to curb oppression; that is at once its potentiality and its limitation, morally and ethically speaking.
Another reason for society’s protector turning predator is a generally accepted definition of prey too broad for government to cope with. The only part of the definition fit for governmental attention is “. . . an animal [human] hunted or killed for food [or whatever] by another animal [human] . . . to plunder; pillage; rob.”
Perhaps one can feather his own nest at the expense of others without the use of fraud or violence. I leave that point to the intellectual hair-splitters. Further, I’ll grant that oppression, however achieved, is not to be sanctioned, and that defenses should be erected against it in all of its nefarious forms. But there are defenses and defenses. My point is that organized police force — government — can effectively serve as a defense only against that brand of oppression which is founded on fraud and violence; that when government force is used for any other purpose, then government itself will become an oppressor. For instance, armament cannot put down stupidity or cupidity or avarice or laziness or conjured-up fears or covetousness or evil thoughts. Yet, more and more we turn to the police force — fruitlessly — as a substitute for our own alertness, moral rectitude, and wisdom; thus we make of government the grand oppressor — collectivized men of prey!
Robbery, pillage, embezzlement, plunder, marauding, misrepresentation, violence or the threat thereof — whether to keep another from accepting a job one has vacated or from a market one has pre-empted — are instances of aggressive force. This type of force, at least in our present state of understanding, can be met only by defensive force — the principled role of government.
But the only defense against ignorance is wisdom, not authority, not police force. Government is limited in what it can appropriately do by its nature. Physical force can only counter physical force. For example, a great deal of what we think of as “preying upon” is possible only because so many people are gullible. The shell-game artists, who formerly infested the midways of county and state fairs, were attracted there by an abundance of yokels or suckers. The existence of a con man presupposes a sufficient number of people who can be conned, that is, people bent on something for nothing and so lacking in skepticism that they can be “taken to the cleaners.” Shell games need not be outlawed, but will disappear as soon as people awaken to the obvious chicanery involved.
Yes, the reason why so many people can be conned is that they are gullible. The only defense against gullibility is to come awake. And precisely the same defense — enlightenment — must apply to conjured-up fears of oppression, the kind that turns our hoped-for protector — government — into a predator. Of the numerous examples that might be used, let’s pick one at random: the minimum wage law.
Take the Minimum Wage Law
Time and again I hear it said, “Why, if we didn’t have a minimum wage law, workers would be exploited!” Such statements have their origin in fear and ignorance — fear of imagined evils, and ignorance of how the market, if free, tends to give every man his due. In the market, each person is rewarded by his peers according to their assessment of the value of his services to them. This is truly the “just price” for his labor.
The very persons, in and out of government, who advocate a minimum wage law are themselves guilty of the “dreadful” practice they fear in others. Their fear is that some employers, if not legally restrained, will hire workers at as low a wage as possible. And they will, indeed! But observe that these fearful ones do precisely the same: they themselves shop around for bargain prices.
No housewife — not even a union official’s wife — will pay 70 cents for the same quality eggs that she can buy next door for 60 cents. She will no more indulge herself in such economic nonsense than the maker of cans will pay an above-market price for sheet steel. What are eggs or sheet steel but the products of human energy! What matters whether one’s wage is paid in dollars per hour or as a price for the thing one produces? No difference, whatsoever! When the housewife buys her groceries or shoes or hats or whatever at the bargain counter she is, in the final analysis, paying the lowest possible price for labor. When she fears that some employer will do what she does day in and day out, and when she advocates a minimum wage law to keep others from doing likewise, she displays not only an ungrounded fear but an ignorance of economic abc’s.
Whoever advocates the minimum wage law not only makes an oppressor of government but of himself as well. If this seems contrary to fact, it is only because we are accustomed to think of the oppressor — he who preys upon —as one who harms others strictly for his own advantage. Clearly, many of those who advocate minimum wage laws get nothing in return for their advocacy. But the fact that an advocate gets no loot for himself from the oppression he promotes in no way diminishes the oppressive force of the minimum wage law or absolves the advocate.
Who Gets Hurt?
Who is oppressed by a minimum wage law? The number, of course, is determined by how high the rate is.2 But it is the multitude of marginal workers who prefer working for less than the minimum to not working at all, plus another multitude of marginal producers who prefer to hire below the minimum to not hiring at all. These people, all of them, are robbed of employment, and of all the gains, to each that might have been.3
Conceding that no gain accrues to most advocates of a minimum wage law, how can its advocacy be classified as oppression? The answer would be easy were our thought of oppression or preying upon not limited to the forcible transfer from the robbed to the robber of material things such as cash, or an auto, or whatever. But, in this instance, the forcible transfer is, initially, not of goods but of a right. The right to earn one’s own living is a precious possession. This is forcibly taken from people and turned over to government. What was once a person’s economic right to make his own way now becomes the right of government to make his way for him. He is removed from the market, featured by self-responsibility and self-determination, and put at the disposal of the political apparatus. In a word, the minimum wage law is an oppressive abuse of human rights and it is brought about by organized police force.
Clearly, most advocates of the minimum wage law do not gain any rights over the persons who fall below the minimum because the advocates are not a part of the political apparatus. But, they are accessories to the immoral act, and primarily because (1) they fear that others will not act more magnanimously than they do, and (2) because they have no understanding of how the free market constantly exerts its forces in the direction of economic upgrading for all.
From Protection to Predation
However, the minimum wage law, like strikes and all other interference with the market, finally gets into the cash drawer. Employers do not pay wages beyond a worker’s worth to them. Thus, those workers who cannot produce and earn that minimum wage are disemployed — legally and compulsively thrown out of work. The right to look after themselves has been taken away and given to the government, so the government must provide their living. But, having nothing of its own, how can government do this? Simple: government forcibly takes cash from those remaining on the work force, and from accumulated capital, and uses the cash to finance such make-work projects as Federal urban renewal, or to provide unemployment insurance, or any one of countless devices.4 It is in this manner that government, designed as our agency of defense, becomes the great oppressor. And partly because so many persons include in their definition of “preying upon” the common and ethical practice of shopping around for bargain prices. It is self-evident that there is no fraud or violence in a willing exchange of your cash for my labor, regardless of how little your cash or how relatively inefficient my labor.
The minimum wage law has been used only to illustrate how government is turned from protector to predator, how the agency for minimizing oppression has itself become the great oppressor. And the big question is: What defense do we have against our erstwhile defender, now one of the greatest and most powerful oppressors ever known? Certainly, our defense cannot be organized force, for this oppressor has a monopoly of that. Whether we like it or can see any hope in it or not, only one avenue remains open to us: enlightenment, understanding, overcoming our naiveté, coming awake. Is not this oppression pretty much of our own making? And isn’t it possible that our applied intelligence, eventually, might correct these mistakes we have made?
Steps Toward Correction
An awakening to the nature of organized police force is step number one. We shall never know where force should not be employed unless we are sharply aware of its limitations. And the only problem is to figure out what can and cannot be accomplished with a billy club. Were this widely understood, our oppressor would wilt away in the face of the resulting skepticism. Yet, given our present state of understanding, even this would leave most people with the feeling of a hollow victory. With the All-Promising dethroned, to what do we look now? The Myth has vanished; who or what is to perform our miracles? An empty promise is better than no promise; all appears to be void!
It takes a second step to fill that void: an awareness of the potentialities of individual liberty—personal insight and understanding of the wonder-working miracle of cooperation via the free market process. This is much more difficult than understanding what a billy club can and cannot do. The fact that nearly everyone proclaims for liberty — authoritarians and interventionists by the millions — suggests that those who have not experienced this insight are oblivious of their nonexperience. And what can one who is aware of liberty’s potentialities do about inducing a similar insight in another who doesn’t know he hasn’t experienced it?
I asked of an inquiring spirit, “How long have you been interested in this nonoppressive philosophy?” She replied, “I have now been liberated for six months!” What brought on this “liberation,” this insight? It was quite by chance, a skillful explanation by a friend concerning self-responsibility. Immediately, there was a freeing of the spirit of inquiry, an intelligent curiosity, a state of “wanting-to-know-it-ness.” Parenthetically, no person is as much as educable on the free market, private property, limited government philosophy until his “liberation.” And we know, from years of observation, that there is no master key to inducing such insight in another; the aforementioned self-responsibility explanation might not trigger more than one in a thousand. Thus, it is plain that what you or I can do to afford others an enhanced grasp of liberty and its enormous, unbelievable potentialities is limited to how extensive a repertoire of explanations we can encase in our own intellectual portfolio. If one explanation has no triggering effect on an unliberated person, it is possible that one of several hundred other explanations will.
Yet, this limitation on what we can accomplish with others may be a blessing in disguise. It has a profound message for those of us who have a glimmering of light:
Wake up! Come even more alive to the meaning of individual liberty; it is one of the great challenges this moment in human evolution presents. Meet the challenge by knowing more of liberty’s promise, or face the consequences. Bear in mind that scarcely anyone — even you — is very far out of the slumber stage. And, for this reason, do not be taken in by the cliché, “We are only talking to ourselves.” Search for the “liberated”; they are to be found among “ourselves.” If you can discover who they are, you can learn from them and, hopefully, they may learn from you. There is no other way to put down men of prey.
That’s how the message comes through to me; it doesn’t flatter my ego but it makes sense.
1 See The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics by Woodrow Wilson. D. C. Heath & Co., 1898, revised ed., p. 572.
2 Were the minimum wage law set at 10 cents an hour, probably there would be no robbery, no oppression, no disturbance of the market; if at $1.25, as presently, a considerable unemployment; if at $1.65, as proposed, a greater unemployment; and if, shall we say, at $15, then, perhaps everyone would be unemployed, for the economy would disintegrate; it could not function.
3 I use the term, unemployment, in its broadest sense: the employer employs employees, as all agree, but the employee should remember that he employs an employer.
4 See Encyclopedia of U. S. Government Benefits, 1,000 pages and listing over 10,000 so-called benefits. Obtainable from Doubleday Book Shop, 724 Fifth Ave. at 57th St., Customer Service, New York, N. Y. Reg. Ed., $7.75; De Luxe Executive Ed., $9.95.