Men of Prey


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.


October 1966



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

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required
Sign me up for...


September 2014

For centuries, hierarchical models dominated human organizations. Kings, warlords, and emperors could rally groups--but also oppress them. Non-hierarchical forms of organization, though, are increasingly defining our lives. It's no secret how this shift has benefited out social lives, including dating, and it's becoming more commonplace even in the corporate world. But it has also now come even to organizations bent on domination rather than human flourishing, as the Islamic State shows. If even destructive groups rely on this form of entrepreneurial organization, then hierarchy's time could truly be coming to an end.
Download Free PDF