Kakistocracy is one of those words so seldom heard that it might be taken to represent some­thing that never existed. It means "a government by the worst men." Lowell gave the term an intolerant but more colorful definition, "a government… for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools."¹ Are we approaching this form of gov­ernment, or have we already em­braced it unawares? Once upon a time we thought of our nation as a republic, even after it had be­come in practice a democracy. But whoever thinks of the U.S.A. as a kakistocracy? The word is not even known to most of us.

The purpose of this paper is to highlight our kakistocratic tend­encies and to offer a few thoughts as to how they can be halted and reversed.

A communist society, to my way of thinking, qualifies as a kakis­tocracy. Its coercive theme, "from each according to ability, to each according to need," strikingly par­allels a form of government in which knavery exploits ignorance. This observation requires some explanation.

Regardless of the descriptive term—communism or welfare statism—the redistributionist philosophy in practice presupposes the existence of three classifica­tions of persons, the archetypes of which are: (1) the person with "ability," that is, the one from whom honestly earned property is taken, (2) the person with "need," that is, the one to whom someone else’s property is given, and (3) the person in command of the in­struments of compulsion, that is, the authoritarian.

The first archetype: The per­sons whose property is forcibly taken evince neither knavery nor foolishness unless they are "taken in" and thus become a party to the state welfarist tendency. Those who are taken in appear to be on the increase; behold the well-to-do as well as the business "leaders" who petition government for federal urban renewal and countless other special privileges. Thus do our "best educated" peo­ple exhibit both knavery and fool­ishness.2

The second archetype: Perhaps it is foolishness more than knav­ery that prompts the innocents to accept something for nothing. As they permit government to assume the responsibility for their secur­ity and welfare, they relieve them­selves of self-responsibility, the removal of which depersonalizes the individual and thus destroys him.

The third archetype: Authori­tarians, and all who support the forcible taking from some to dis­tribute to others, exemplify both knavery and foolishness. That they see some benefit to them­selves in this action is self-evident for, if they saw no benefit, they would not act in this manner. Nor need the benefit they see be en­tirely material; they can be and often are motivated by the thirst for power or popular acclaim or a mixed-up sense of what is called social justice. To feather one’s own nest, that is, to gain self­satisf action at the expense of others, regardless of the motiva­tion, is knavery, pure and simple.

Foolishness shows forth in the authoritarian in that he unintel­ligently interprets his own inter­est. He fails to see that he cannot develop, emerge, improve himself while he is riding herd over others. The authoritarian who has you on your back, holding you down, is just as permanently fast­ened on top of you as you are under him. In that sense, the slave owner is enslaved, as is the slave.

How Far Have We Gone?

So far as this paper is con­cerned, it is not necessary to out­line in detail how far down the communistic or from-each-accord-ing-to-ability-to-each-according-to-need road we Americans have come. A reading of the ten points of the Communist Manifesto should convince anyone that we are headed into a kakistocracy.3 Instead of spelling out the detail, let’s examine the recent break­through of gambling as a means of financing coercive (govern­mental) welfarism. Should this gambling idea take hold, there would be no doubt that we had arrived at a political situation founded on knavery and foolish­ness:

New Hampshire‘s political appa­ratus has recently enacted a state-run sweepstakes. This is the first gambling operation of the lottery type to be legalized in the United States in the twentieth century.

Other states are now under pres­sure to follow in New Hampshire‘s footsteps. A national lottery, long proposed, gains support. The idea of gambling to finance government is being taken seriously.

First, a word about gambling in general. If anyone wishes to risk his savings or bread-and-butter money in games of chance, that would appear to be his own business. Neither I nor any com­bination of us, through govern­ment or otherwise, have a right to inhibit or prohibit gambling, re­gardless of amount. People learn when they suffer the consequences of their own actions. To relieve men of their follies, as Emerson suggested, is to people the world with fools.

Gambling falls into two broad classifications. There is the penny ante or for-fun type of gambling like "a tenth" at bridge or the "two-bit nassau" at golf, or a dollar on the homecoming game. All that one participant gains an­other gambler loses.

Then there is the I-mean-busi­ness or serious type of gambling, the professional variety. This is the kind with the "kitty" or "house take" or "pinch" as found at race tracks and gambling houses, the winnings from which never add up to the total losses. If the game lasts long enough, the "kitty" will, with mathematical certainty, get everything.

If one wishes to gamble for fun, or if he regards the "house take" or "kitty" or "pinch" as an enter­tainment charge, all well and good. But to gamble as an economic means is sheer foolishness; and to sponsor it as a political means is nothing short of knavery. To grasp this point, one needs only reflect on the impossibility of a society composed of gamblers and no one else.

Some churches and private charities resort to bingo and lot­teries as a means of raising rev­enue. 1 do not claim that they have no right to do this; but I must point out that, by making this a serious business, they put their in­stitutional approval on the house-take type of gambling as an eco­nomic way of life. I know that this is bad economics; I doubt that it is good theology; to me, it is spiritual abdication and, thus, a sign of decadence.4

In a sense, government is the secular high priest. Ideally, it is the agency which society uses to protect economic and other rights against fraud, violence, and the like in the interest of a common justice. When government itself becomes unjust, when it turns from protector to predator, or when it invites gambling as an economic means of financing its operations, it divests itself of re­spectability. When government does these things, it sanctifies and fosters injustice, predation, and economic nonsense! When this point is reached, it has become a government in which knavery and foolishness take over; it has be­come a kakistocracy, unworthy of respect.

A False Hope that Spreads

The recent New Hampshire breakthrough is symptomatic of a systemic disease: the blind hope of getting something for nothing. This blind hope is not at all pe­culiar to the Granite State; New Hampshire is simply giving legal expression to gambling as a means of obtaining more revenue to re­lieve the financial pressure which has been and is being brought on by government welfarism. Actu­ally, New Hampshire‘s gambling gimmick differs not a whit in prin­ciple from the action in New York where the racing season was re­cently extended for no other pur­pose than to add to the state’s revenues. The same indictment can be leveled at numerous other states.

The states, as well as all munici­palities, are suffering from politi­cal schemes originating, on the one hand, with the foolish hope of something for nothing and, on the other, with the knavish claims on the part of some that they know how to make this hope a reality. These schemes—building bathtubs for Egyptian camel riders, paying farmers for not farming, "social security," federal urban renewal, three men on the moon, and so on and on—have nec­essarily resulted in a dollar of de­preciating value. The price level and, thus, the budgets of local government, in dollar terms, have risen year by year, resulting in an inevitable outgo-income squeeze. The something-for-nothing hope coming home to roost!


Proof that economic lessons cannot be learned by those who have no aptitudes for economics is the extent to which local officials and those who vote them into office have been taken in by more of the self-same knavery which has al­ready spelled their fiscal undoing. Knavery showing forth at the fed­eral level has persuaded the inno­cents at the local level that the federal government can forcibly take funds from local-ites and give part of the funds back to them, provided that the local-ites match these federal "grants-in-aid," that is, match their own money! State and local governments have fallen for this political legerdemain on a grand scale, mostly as a response to such utter foolishness as, "We’re paying for it, so we might as well get our share. "5 Thousands of local units are in a fiscal mess because they joined the knavery-foolishness combination with its inevitable day of reckoning. That day has come and gone; all that remains is to seek a remedy.

More of the Same

Now, what is the remedy we hear about? It’s simply more of the very same medicine: gam­bling, an uneconomic means to fi­nance uneconomic ends!

Omit New Hampshire; its gam­bling system is approved but not in operation as this is written. Take, instead, New York; the Empire State is experienced in the gambling business. The "kitty" or "house take" here is 15 per cent on horse-race betting, the take divided between the race track owner and the sovereign state of New York. Place a $2.00 bet. What’s left? $1.70! Add 300 and place another $2.00 bet. How many bets before the "kitty" has all of the $2.00? Forgetting the admis­sion and the "breakage," what but knavery could account for such a practice and who but foolish per­sons can regard it as making eco­nomic sense?6

1 have made several vain at­tempts to get statistical data about national lotteries in deca­dent countries. Little more is un­covered than, "All the proceeds go for welfare." Sometimes education is the excuse offered, as in New Hampshire. Note well that all our gambling schemes use precisely this same misleading lingo the knavery-foolishness combination again. Any doubt? If so, assume that the U.S.A. enacts a national lottery. The preamble of the legis­lation will say "to aid education" or something considered good and noble. Not in the wildest imagina­tion would the preamble read "to pay farmers for not growing to­bacco" or any other such nonsense.

Yet, it makes not the slightest difference what purpose is set forth in the preamble. If the lot­tery loot is credited to education by the federal bookkeepers, then it merely releases a like amount for payment to farmers for not growing tobacco, or whatever. This is precisely like our foreign aid type of "reasoning" where we give food, rather than guns, to com­munist countries on the ground that we want them to have food but not guns. By so doing, we merely release for the purchase of guns what otherwise they would have spent for food.

In New Hampshire or New York or other places where the states take their gambling cut, we note no reduction in other forms of taxation. These monies are used only to add to the state’s total take of the peoples’ earned income. Politicians who contrive such revenue trappings are, by definition, utterly lacking in fiscal sanity.

Some people—"I am not pass­ing on gambling," each hastens to add—argue that a government lottery is all right on the ground that it is voluntary: one does not have to participate unless he wishes. This type of "logic" could as well condone legalized prostitu­tion as a source of government in­come because one does not have to participate unless choosing to do so. A person who leans toward libertarian principles should never get trapped into thinking that an act is good simply because it is private and/or voluntary. Many evil actions are both private and voluntary.

A Regressive Tax

Point II in the Communist Man­ifesto calls for "a heavy progres­sive or graduated income tax." This we have in the U.S.A.—up to 91 per cent! It would seem the better part of wisdom to repeal this unprincipled Amendment to our Constitution, but we should bear in mind that unprincipled taxation is but an inescapable consequence of expenditures for unprincipled governmental activi­ties. For we cannot be rid of the effect without first ridding our­selves of the cause. The national debate, however, has not as yet engaged the cause aspect of the problem—only talk as to how to "cushion" the effect. We are ignor­ing the cause and are bent on con­triving new forms of taxation to pay for the unprincipled activi­ties: gambling, of all devices! Yet, we must confess, this miserable means aptly fits state welfarism.

A lottery, be it state or na­tional, is regressive, the opposite of progressive taxation in its in­cidence. The progressive principle gets at the wealthy: the more in­come, the greater is the percent­age of government take. The re­gressive principle gets at the poor: the less income, the greater is the percentage of government take.

A lottery-for-revenue need not, necessarily, be regressive, but in practice it is. Merely observe the lottery hawkers on the streets of Paris or Rio or Montevideo or Geneva or wherever. Who are the buyers? The wealthy? The middle class? Indeed not! Anyone sens­ible enough to have stashed away a competence for himself isn’t likely to be taken in, to any serious ex­tent, by the "kitty" or "house-take" type of gambling. The buyers of lottery tickets are the poorest people in the land—fran­tically trying to escape from their poverty by "hitting the jack pot." And, why not? Many of their spiritual priests have advocated the practice, and their secular priest—government—has done likewise. To top it off, the welfare state has assured them of food, shelter, and clothing should they plead distress, and the cause mat­ters not; it can be gambling or whatever.

Hoodwinking the Poor Is Knavery at Its Worst

Regressive taxation coupled with progressive taxation only adds insult to injury. It isn’t that the poor should not be taxed; it is that they should not be hood­winked. Proportional taxation, rarely discussed, as distinguished from regressive and progressive taxation, calls for the same per­centage take of all incomes, be they small or large; in that vital sense, it treats the poor and the wealthy alike. But to play political tricks on poor and gullible people, such as the "kitty" type of gam­bling taxation, is nothing less than pitiful; it is pure knavery. Even though many very low in­come people may never understand the equity and the justice of pro­portional taxation, at least their innocence and/or foolishness would be dealt with honestly. Whenever innocence and foolish­ness are exploited, there we shall behold a social decadence; there we shall witness kakistocracy as surely as in the Roman Empire when bread-and-circuses—knavery—held sway over mass foolish­ness.7

A Natural Aristocracy

Is there an antidote for kakistoc­racy? There is, indeed! It is what Jefferson called "a natural aristoc­racy among men," founded, as he suggested, on "virtue and talents." But since the idea of a natural aristocracy is about as foreign to current discussions as is the term kakistocracy, some elaboration is in order. Let me re­fer to a bit of personal back­ground.

Born near the close of the 90′s and of parents struggling to make a go of it on a small, Midwestern farm, 1 was reared in the wonder­ful world of work with all the fundamental lessons it had to teach. I learned the relationship between sweat of the brow and a pint of milk; I knew that each ear of corn was paid for at the end of a hoe. All that we owned was hard-gotten and, as a conse­quence, the little we had was hard parted with.

If there were not many con men who tried to take us in, it was because the detection of phoniness was the price of survival. The con­ditions in which we lived bred into us an unrelenting skepticism. To be taken in by deception was a disgrace; to be "made a sucker of" was to be identified with the unfit.

Our country school taught men­tal arithmetic, that is, how to do "figures in your head." A good pupil could do 89 times 91 "in his head" nearly as easily as 2 times 2. This type of training made it hard on phonies; it was good pro­tection against knavery.

While we didn’t know very much about the wide world, we did have many simple beliefs. I chuckle now to think how my dad would have reacted had a college-bred bureaucrat dropped by, proposing to pay him for not growing crops. My dad knew little about political economy as taught now, but he likened all something-for-nothing schemes to the unauthorized shell games at county fairs to fleece the rural yokels. He would have "laughed his head off" had some­one proposed to secure his old age by forcibly taking funds from him, spending the proceeds on moon shots, and putting an IOU in the cash box. Nor did my dad know how to monetize debt; but he didn’t believe in counterfeiting, even when legalized.

There was just as much ignor­ance, naiveté, gullibility, foolishness, knavery in our neighborhood—perhaps more—than there is now. Why, then, did not these weaknesses rise to the top and take over the situation as is now the case? Well, they simply could not flourish very well among hard­working, self-responsible, God-fearing, skeptical folk. Knavery can thrive only where foolishness lacks strong opposition; it is hope­lessly out of business where there is a natural aristocracy of virtue and talents.

Fungi, for example, will flourish on a muck heap. They do not thrive everywhere, not because of the absence of fungus spores, which are always present, but be­cause there are many situations where the spores cannot take hold.

We do not "catch cold." The germs are in all of us; they are omnipresent. But let one’s resist­ance—health—diminish only slightly and, presto, a cold takes over.

Millions are born onto this earth annually, all ignorant. Some do not improve very much and, thus, ignorance, like fungus spores or cold germs, is omnipresent. It is absurd to think that ignorance can be stamped out, but it can be held in check: Ignorance—knavery and foolishness—can be kept from taking over a society only as a natural aristocracy of virtue and talents holds it in check. Let a first-rate natural aristocracy diminish in quality only slightly and, presto, we will have a kakistocracy with lotteries to help in its financing. Virtue and talents, enough to form a thin but stiff social crust, are the lowest price at which a good society can be had. Thus, the only real solution boils down to the emergence and maintenance of a natural aristocracy.

On whom does one work to de­velop virtue and talents or this natural aristocracy? On others? You might as well accept the task of eliminating every fungus spore on earth! 1 am the only one who can develop my own virtue and talents, lighting my candle at the flames lit by others. It follows, then, that you can best help me in my project by excelling me in your own. This is the type of individual­ism that can insure individual liberty.


¹ Letters of James Russell Lowell, ed. Charles Eliot Norton (Vol. II, 1893), p. 179.

2 Intolerance and exasperation incline many of us, like Lowell, to categorize per­sons whose ideas and notions we think inferior as knaves and fools. This is in­feriority showing through in ourselves. There is some knavery and foolishness in the best of us; these are not exclusive traits in the worst of us. It is on ideas, not persons, that we should hang our labels.

3 For a listing of the ten points, ask for "The Communist Idea" (Part I) from the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y.

4Why is it that so many churches and governments can adopt gambling with so little criticism? True, the critical faculty as related to gambling is not generally sensitive. But, equally important, these churches and governments are not suffi­ciently esteemed in the spiritual and juridical areas over which they presume to preside; their laxity is not in conflict with the little that is expected of them. To put this point in bold relief, merely imagine that FEE, a miniature institu­tion dedicated to the high principles of freedom, should adopt bingo or lotteries as a means of raising revenue. In my opinion, all present supporters, financial and ideological, would desert our effort, so shocking would be the contrast be­tween principled expectations and the unprincipled performance.

5 See Clichés of Socialism (Irvington­-on-Hudson, N. Y.: Foundation for Eco­nomic Education, Inc.), p. 57. $1.00.

6 Suppose your horse pays $2.64. You will be paid in the highest amount divisi­ble by 5, or $2.60. The leftover pennies are called "breakage." In New York the state picks up several million dollars an­nually this way. Peanuts, of course, but nonetheless interesting.

7 Simony, the exploitation of human weaknesses such as the "sale of indul­gences," is, according to Canon Law, a very grave sin and simoniacal ecclesias­tics may be excommunicated. In what manner does the exploitation, by either state or church, of the propensity to gam­ble differ in principle?


August 1963



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


December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
Download Free PDF




Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)


The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)