Hector and Iago: A Parable of the State by Murray Rothbard


Once Upon a Time there was a peaceful valley. The people were happy in this valley; they worked, they traded, and they laughed together. No man exerted force upon his neighbor, and all lived and prospered.

One day there came to this valley a roaming band of marauders, led by a gang leader, whom we shall call Hector. This band came with machine guns, and, as was their custom, raped and looted at will among the people of the valley. As they were preparing, as usual, to put the whole valley to the torch (“for kicks,” as one of Hector’s Gang put it, succinctly), one of their number, a brilliant young intellectual whom we shall call Iago, stopped them. “Look, chief,” said Iago, “Why don’t we change our modus operandi? I’m getting pretty sick of all this roaming around, looking always for the next mark, the next victims, always on the run. This is an isolated spot, a beautiful spot. Let’s settle down here, and run these people’s lives. Then, we can milk them all the time, instead of killing them all and moving on.” Hector was a shrewd gang chief, and he saw the wisdom of the idea. The gang settled down.

And so the robbery and the pillage became chronic instead of acute. Annual tribute was levied on the people, the Gang exercised power and dictation over them, and the Gang strutted about in uniforms, issuing orders. There was a great deal of resentment at first; the valley people muttered, and they began to form a People’s Resistance.

Iago, the chief theoretician of Hector’s Gang, explained to the chief that another great change in their methods was due, to fit the changed conditions. “These people outnumber us, chief. Eventually, even though they have no guns now, these people could throw us out, and we’d lose the best deal we ever had. What we’ve got to do is to make them like it.” Making them like it was the great task of Iago and his group of fellow-theoreticians, and Hector and his boys marvelled at the results. Iago fed to the people arguments like the following: “This isn’t tribute, it’s ‘protection.’ We have to protect you for your own good. Otherwise, you’d start killing and looting each other.”

“That’s right, he’s right,” the people muttered. Hector and his gang may be a bunch of rowdies, but at least he’s protecting us from ourselves.” For the memories of the people are short.

And Iago went on: “This isn’t tribute, it’s ‘protection.’ We must protect you from those butcher-birds on the other side of the mountain.” And these words took on a plausibility, for Hector’s Gang, ever eager for loot, began to send probing parties on the other side of the mountain, and fighting periodically ensued. The people listened, and they agreed. “That’s right. Hector and his boys might be a bad lot. But at least they’re ours. They’re not a bunch of foreigners like those people on the other side of the mountain. We need protection from them.” The people forgot that there had been no trouble with the people on the other side of the mountain before. For the memories of the people are short.

“This is great, chief, but we need more measures and more theories to keep these suckers contented,” said Iago. And Hector and Iago began to propagandize that all the people’s children must be educated in schools owned by and operated by Hector, Iago, and their Gang. They called these schools “Valley Schools”; the “people’s schools.” “Anyone who doesn’t educate his kid in a Valley School is undemocratic. He’s anti-social and hates the people. In fact, he’s Un-Valley.” Iago’s scholarly-inclined henchmen, calling themselves “economists” (“It’s got a good Greek sound, chief”), preached that “everyone really benefits from being forced to pay for and attend Hector’s Valley Schools because if A is educated, then B is better off, and therefore B should be forced to be educated, and A too….” And the people listened, and nodded their heads; and the scholarly-inclined among them listened and nodded their heads, too; and pretty soon they became members of Hector’s Gang, Scholarly Division.

What wonders were achieved by Making Them Like It! Hector and his original gang sent for all their relatives for hundreds of miles around; and they all came and joined Hector’s gang, and lived off the fat of the land. The rate of tribute kept increasing, and so did the numbers of the Gang. As the “take” kept going up, the People began to grumble again. Iago and his men exhorted and admonished the grumblers: “You are all selfish,” they said, “because you don’t want to contribute and serve your brothers.” (The “brothers” were, of course, largely members of Hector’s Gang.) And the people, especially the moralists among them, nodded their heads and agreed. They agreed that anyone who kept opposing Hector and his Gang was “selfish, anti-social, and out for his own gain and greed.”

And Hector and his Gang conscripted much of the valley people into a giant labor force to build the Gang a gigantic palace on top of the Valley’s leading hill. It was a beautiful and imposing palace, so everyone said. A few people grumbled at this coercion and waste. Iago and his men thundered: “You miserable creatures! Here is a great monument that we have built, a monument to the glory and destiny and grandeur of Our Valley. And you, slackers and penny-pinchers, would deny Our Valley its monument.” “He’s right,” the people said, glaring angrily at the grumblers. “This valley has the biggest palace of any valley in the land.”

Periodically, Hector and his Gang would go fight the people on the other side of the mountain, to extend their territory and their area of loot. At these times, they needed more men to fight, and so they would again conscript valley people into their Gang. The conscripts, and all the people, were taught that any resistance to this conscription would not only be met with stern measures, but was also dire “treason” against the Valley and its rightful government, Hector’s Gang. The old battle standard that Hector and his men used to raise before going into the next town, Hector and Iago transformed into the “Valley’s Sacred Flag”; anyone who did not bow down to that flag – or sing the old chanty that Hector and his Gang had always sung before going off for a fight – was also branded a “traitor” and dealt with accordingly.

Brilliant indeed were some of the theories that Iago and his men wove in the service of Hector and his Gang. For example, when an isolated Resister would point to the process of theft that was now organized and continuing, Iago’s men said: “You know, you may have been right for the previous historical era. Nowadays, times have changed, and our thinking must change to suit the modern age. In the pre-Hector Era, this process was indeed robbery. Nowadays, it is cooperation for the common good and the welfare of the people of the Valley. And one of the more brilliant of Iago’s Economists said: “You people don’t realize that the moneys taken from you by Hector and his men benefit you all enormously. For Hector and his men spend their money – do they not? – in your shops and your markets. By this spending they give you employment, they circulate the money supply, they keep up mass purchasing-power, which is vital to the Valley Economy, and they provide ‘built-in stability’ for the economic system of the Valley.” The people listened, and they marvelled at the wisdom. And Iago’s men put the theory into complex mathematical symbols; and the people marvelled, and Hector was overjoyed, and the more scholarly among the people listened, and they soon joined Iago’s Division of Scholars.

We could go on indefinitely to delineate the fascinating social structure of this remarkable and surely unique valley. But the important point to note is that, by the marvel wrought by Iago’s propaganda, the status of Hector and his Gang had completely changed from the old and almost-forgotten days. Where once Hector and his Gang skulked like criminals, were regarded by everyone with great contempt and hatred as criminals, and were perpetually on the run, now a revolution had truly occurred. Hector, Iago, and the rest were not criminals but the Most Respected people in the land. Not only were they rich from their chronic annual loot; they were feted by all, loved and feared and honored by the people of the valley. Honors were heaped upon them all. And all because their theft had become regularized, openly proclaimed, and sweetly defended. Lolling on their divans, Hector contentedly said to Iago, “Boy, we never had it so good.” Clapping Hector on the back, Iago said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And, in the meanwhile, Iago’s men were speaking on the hustings before the people: “Our times call for great sacrifices, for the willingness to give.” And the people listened, and they nodded their heads.

Generally, people agreed, or resigned themselves, to the rule of Hector. Those few people, here and there, not swayed by Iagoan propaganda, were taken care of by the Gang. If they became too adamant, they were politely taken out and shot… as traitors to the Valley. “It’s too bad,” said the people, “and I thought I knew Jim. Of course, who could know that he was a traitor?” Everyone agreed that stern times called for stern measures.

Meanwhile, what had happened to the remnants of the People’s Resistance? They had no guns, the Resisters, but they fought on in the realm of ideas. “The spirit, the idea, of liberty must be kept alive,” they said. And so they circulated among themselves their love for liberty and their recognition of who Hector and Iago and their men were and what they were doing. And the thing that gave them most sustenance was their shared credo: “Never forget. Hector is a thief. Hector is a murderer. Hector and his gang are crooks and tyrants, and, one day, they shall be kicked out of this Valley. Hector is a thief and murderer.” And what is Iago? Iago the Resisters held in greater horror even than Hector. For Iago, they pointed out, “is a man of intellect; his is a uniquely moral failure. And Iago is keeping the regime alive by prostituting his intellect in the service of himself and Hector, by duping the people into acceptance.”

“Never forget about Hector and Iago,” they told each other. “Never forget.”

Excerpted from "A Fable for Our Times By One of the Unreconstructed," an unpublished article written by Murray N. Rothbard in May 1961.