The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
By Étienne de La Boétie
Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.
Étienne de La Boétie was born in France in 1530 to an aristocratic family. The date is uncertain, but it is believed he wrote this discourse at the age of 22 or 23. He died when he was only 32 years old.
In this discourse, La Boétie gets to the heart of the issue regarding tyrants and tyranny: why do people submit to the tyrant? Or as Rothbard says in the introduction, “why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement?”
La Boétie cuts to the heart of what is, or rather should be, the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience. Why do people, in all times and place, obey the commands of the government, which always constitutes a small minority of the society? To La Boétie the spectacle of general consent to despotism is puzzling and appalling.
Rothbard has neatly summed up the question being addressed by La Boétie. La Boétie himself poses the question as follows:
…I should merely like to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power other than the power they give him.
It is a curious question, especially considering that there are countless more servants than there are served. Numbers alone cannot explain this submission:
If two, if three, if four, do not defend themselves from the one, we might call that circumstance surprising but nevertheless conceivable…. But if a hundred, if a thousand endure the caprice of a single man, should we not say they lack not the courage but the desire to rise against him, and that such an attitude indicates indifference rather than cowardice?
Could it be that the large numbers explain the submission? To protest when the overwhelming majority of people are compliant is the act of true courage. It is here that La Boétie begins to explore why it is that the majority submits to the minority – or even the one:
Let us therefore understand by logic, if we can, how it happens that this obstinate willingness to submit has become so deeply rooted in a nation that the very love of liberty seems no longer natural…what evil chance has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it.
In connection with this, let us imagine some newborn individuals, neither acquainted with slavery nor desirous of liberty, ignorant indeed of the very words. If they were permitted to choose between being slaves and free men, to which would they give their vote?
La Boétie rightly concludes that the newborns would choose liberty – and liberty as properly understood, not the liberty of state-worshipping songs and pledges, but the liberty grounded on a real understanding and acceptance of property rights and the non-aggression principle.
It suggests the complete depravity of man that he today considers his life as one lived in a state of liberty. What kind of liberty is this? Half of his work is confiscated by the state. The most fundamental commodity useful for trade and division of labor is monopolized and then abused by the state. Every aspect of life is controlled by rules and regulations promoted and enforced by the state. To acquire food, one must pay a tax. To acquire and hold property, one must pay a tax. Now, to NOT acquire medical insurance, one must pay a tax. After all of this, when he dies, half of what he has managed to save is confiscated by the state.
Yet many today count this as liberty. I think La Boétie uses the example of the newborn to demonstrate that for one to truly answer this question one must be free of the biased and false definitions of the term liberty. The true meaning of this term is virtually unknown to a person raised under the current tyranny.
La Boétie then suggests the one possible exception of those, previously free, willingly submitting to tyrannical rule:
The only possible exception might be the Israelites who, without any compulsion or need, appointed a tyrant. I can never read their history without becoming angered and even inhumane enough to find satisfaction in the many evils that befell them on this account.
Here La Boétie is referring to 1 Samuel 8. The passage itself is worth a read, as God warns the Israelites of the abuses awaiting them under a king, including a 10% tax on all one produces. Ten Percent.
La Boétie believes that man willingly lives under this tyranny because it is all he knows. The first generation may fight it and hate it, but shortly subsequent generations come to live under it as the only system they know.
...men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right….the essential reason why men take orders willingly is that they are born serfs and are reared as such.
This certainly has truth to it, however it should be noted that schooling, controlled and funded by the state, plays a significant role in keeping the masses content with their lot in life.
La Boétie then observes that the very nature of the state under tyranny will attract those with the worst nature – those that are the worst choices for placing in such positions of power:
…whenever a ruler makes himself a dictator, all the wicked dregs of the nation…those who are corrupted by burning ambition or extraordinary avarice, these gather around him and support him in order to have a share in the booty and to constitute themselves petty chiefs under the big tyrant….they act as if their wealth really belonged to them, and forget that it is they themselves who give the ruler the power to deprive everybody of everything….
Individuals with well-centered ethics do not choose to lord over others, telling them what to do, forcing them to comply under threat of punishment up to and including death. One of the worst characteristics of state power is that it attracts to it human beings of the worst character.
La Boétie ends with what is almost a prayer or a plea, a wish I am sure held by many who understand the true nature of the evil that is the coercion unto submission under the tyrannical state:
There is nothing so contrary to a generous and loving God as tyranny – I believe He has reserved, in a separate spot in Hell, some very special punishment for tyrants and their accomplices.
La Boétie makes the case that the power of all tyrants comes from the consent of the governed. Withdraw the consent, and the tyrant will be toppled.
What to do with all of this? La Boétie must be commended for these observations – observations made almost 500 years ago. In a few short pages he has laid bare the truth that the ruled far outnumber the rulers, and that this truth offers some hope, a way through.
La Boétie identifies one problem in achieving a positive change – there is a remnant, but they do not and cannot know each other – they are too few in a land of the masses educated and trained to live in the service of their masters.
…however numerous they may be, they are not known to one another.
The internet today has certainly changed this dynamic, and to a large extent Ron Paul has been the catalyst for the remnant to find each other.
In the introduction, Rothbard outlines his views on the best strategy to achieve positive results based on the observations made by La Boétie:
…the primary task of opponents of modern tyranny is an educational one: to awaken the public to this process, to demystify and desanctify the State apparatus….[it] is not simply one of educating the public about the “errors” committed by the government….We have to realize that we are facing a mighty engine of power and economic exploitation, and therefore that, at the very least, libertarian education of the public must include an exposé of this exploitation, and of the economic interests and intellectual apologists who benefit from State rule.
This is the task. It is a task being accomplished by many, including Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute, Gary North, and many others.
Rothbard ends with a note of real optimism:
…should State despotism ever be removed, it would be extremely difficult to reimpose statism. The bulwark of habit would be gone, and statism would be seen by all for the tyranny that it is. If a free society were ever to be established, then, the chances for its maintaining itself would be excellent.
From Murray’s lips to God’s ears. If we live to see this day, may we never again make the mistake the Israelites made.