Silicon Valley businessmen fancy themselves unflinching hard-core capitalists. Yet they hate to compete for workers — and the New York Times found an email to prove it.

The Justice Department is investigating whether large tech companies illegally conspired over employee poaching. It's an open secret in the Valley that tech companies have agreements not to actively recruit one another's workers; Kleiner Perkins partner Randy Komisar called these "gentlemen's understanding[s]" in the New York Times today. It appears the Justice Department may have finally decided to make an issue of the practice on antitrust grounds.

If that's the case, some of the largest tech companies are at risk. The Times quoted a former Google recruiter saying the company distributes a list of companies whose workers cannot be approached. Then there's the email:

A December 2007 e-mail message written by a Google recruiter and obtained by The New York Times suggests that the company might have had an agreement with Apple on recruiting.

Laura Sheppard, a contract recruiter at Google, sent the e-mail message to a job candidate asking him to put her in touch with another potential candidate. "It is a bit touchy since he works for Apple," Ms. Sheppard wrote, adding that Google had "a nonsolicit agreement with them."

Google declined to comment on its hiring practices or on the e-mail message, whose authenticity could not be independently verified.

There you have it: When it comes to immigration controls or the taxation of stock options, tech honchos are all about the free market. But when it comes to the sort of competition that most benefits your average Silicon Valley worker — competitive hiring — suddenly they turn into feudal lords. Is that really so "gentleman"ly?