August 1, 2000
Reading James Bovard’s excellent Freedom in Chains (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999) forcefully reminded me of the importance of Étienne de la Boétie. Bovard quotes La Boétie here and there and it dawned on me that the latter’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, written in 1552 or ’53 and not published until after his death,1 provides a very good counterpoint to last week’s discussion of Gustave de Molinari’s views on the provision of security. Molinari sketched out the model of an inexpensive territorial agency charged with defense of actual persons and their property and nothing else. La Boétie was concerned with the more common case, that of governments which do pretty much what they want, charge whatever they can get away with, and tyrannize over the vast majority while propagandizing everyone into accepting these proceedings.
La Boétie did not live a long life. He was only thirty-two when he died. Born in the Périgord region of southwestern France, he received a classical education and studied law at the University of Orléans, receiving his degree in 1553. He served in the Parlement of Bourdeaux (more of an appeals court than a "parliament" in the modern sense), beginning in 1559.
At Orléans, law was taught as a search for the truth a contrast, perhaps, with modern law schools. This was a period of violent conflict over religion in the state and La Boétie, who was leaning towards Protestantism at the time, wrote his famous essay in a spirit of rediscovering fundamental truths. This was a time when Catholic and Protestant theorists were arguing for the people’s right to depose an unjust ruler – "unjust" being partly defined as making the wrong choice of religion.
French historian Pierre Mesnard states that La Boétie’s essay represents "the humanist solution to the problem of authority."2 After La Boétie’s death, radical Huguenot writers claimed his argument as their own and published part of his essay in 1574.
In his introduction to the 1975 edition of the essay, Murray N. Rothbard stressed the rationalist and axiomatic quality of La Boétie’s treatment of politics and tyranny. Some writers, including Leo Tolstoy, have seen La Boétie as a full-fledged anarchist. Rothbard doubted this but wrote that "one can easily press on [from La Boétie’s discussion] to anarchist conclusions."3
The essay is rather brief. Part I deals with what Murray Rothbard used to call "the mystery of civil obedience." La Boétie writes: "For the present I should 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 than the power they give him…." (p. 46) This might happen in wartime, he admits, but why in peacetime?
Again, people might incline to obey "some great personage" who has helped them meet a great emergency. But why do the millions obey "a single little man," who is often enough not especially forceful or personally brave? Whatever the explanation, it must be "a monstrous vice" going well beyond simple cowardice on the part of the many.
History and literature record that men will make great sacrifices when their liberty is clearly threatened by a foreign enemy. In actual battle, those fighting for liberty and independence have fought harder than would-be conquerors and have often prevailed. How to explain their "self-enslavement" to a homegrown tyranny when it would not take much violence or hardship to be free: "I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer…."(p. 53).
La Boétie now discusses man and society from the standpoint of natural law. People differ in many ways; a degree of inequality is natural. Yet people have inborn reason, are similar, and have sympathy with one another, making society possible. Thus society is not inevitably "a field of battle" (pp. 56-57).
La Boétie notes that tyrants may be of three kinds – those chosen by election, military conquerors, and hereditary rulers. I have underscored the first category because of its possible contemporary relevance. He sees no reason to prefer one type of tyrant to another: "the method of ruling is practically the same; those who are elected act as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves" (p. 59).
It’s enough to make one swear off election reform, although it does provide Senator McCain with a fairly harmless hobby.
La Boétie begins closing in on his target. He notes that "force and deception" might account for the initial successes of a tyrant, adding that people sometimes wish to be deceived. What is crucial for La Boétie is that obedience to tyrants becomes a habit: "as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it…. [it] has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement" (p. 60).
The direct threat of force recedes as the people, "unaware of any other state or right," become content to live with what now seems to them normal and inevitable. Still, "there is no heir so spendthrift or indifferent that he does not sometimes scan the account books of his father in order to see if he is enjoying all the privileges of his legacy or whether, perchance, his rights and those of his predecessor have not been encroached upon" (ibid.). This might explain the recent growing interest, in some circles, in the real American Constitution as opposed to various New Models based on repeated usurpations by officials and textual deconstructions by the Nine Delphic Oracles ("the soo-preme court," as Senator Dirksen used to say).
A few there are who cannot abide tyranny, La Boétie notes, but they are not numerous enough to decide the matter. One imagines that special "rules of engagement" and really good gun-sights are indicated for such hard cases. But to get back to the majority – the "sheeple" as certain writers call them: "the essential reason why men take orders willingly is that they are born serfs and reared as such" (p. 67).
When liberty perishes, valor vanishes as well. Here La Boétie echoes republican theory, but the point seems clear enough, with or without Polybius, Machiavelli, and the rest. Tyrants may also achieve by corruption what they would hesitate to achieve by force. La Boétie writes of how Cyrus pacified the rebellious Lydian city of Sardis: "He established in it brothels, taverns, and public games, and issued the proclamation that the inhabitants were to enjoy them. He found this type of garrison so effective that he never again had to draw the sword against the Lydians" (p. 69).
There will be a brief intermission while left-libertarians try to assimilate the connection between cultural corruption, state policy, and tyranny….
Roman emperors would put on big feasts and games, with gifts for the participants. La Boétie writes: "The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property" already seized from them (p. 70). The poor ancients, of course, didn’t have the Republicans and Democrats competing at this art form and thereby ratcheting up the costs.
And, gee, I wonder what Al Gore will give me that Dubya won’t? Or the other way around.
In time, La Boétie writes, a whole class arises, the members of which owe their fortunes to the tyrant. They are not especially secure in this property after all, no one’s property is very secure – so they must pray for the good health of their patron. Here we have the Law and the Prophets of our modern neo-mercantilist welfare-warfare state in a few paragraphs (pp. 80-81). Such people, rather than the soldiers, are the real backbone of the tyrant’s rule.
Sufficiently miseductated and trained to serfdom, the people seldom blame the tyrant for the state of their affairs. His advisors – Walter Heller or Alan Greenspan, I suppose – have made "mistakes" and may have to go. But the tyrant himself is beyond good and evil.
We could use a clearheaded fellow like La Boétie just now. Indeed, we could do with a battalion or two. They are beginning to rise up. I can recommend James Bovard as one, and there are others. Rothbard’s introduction to The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (1975) makes the essay’s timeless relevance plain, just in case I haven’t in this short space. All in all, La Boétie’s fifty or so pages are far more useful and important than those seventy-some volumes of Lenin (Progress Publishers, Moscow) or the seemingly endless Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe (MEGA). You can learn more and save time, too.
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