The Politics of Obedience

Antony — June 19, 2012

Book Review: The Politics of Obedience – The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, by Etienne de la Boetie

Over the weekend I read the political essay The Politics of Obedience – Discourses on Voluntary Servitude, written by Etienne de la Boetie in the 1550s while he was studying at law school. It is a fairly short book – only 80 pages, about 40 of which are taken up by a forward by Murray Rothbard.

The question that de la Boetie explores is how rulers are able to have power over their subjects. What is it that allows rulers, who are outnumbered and outgunned by their subjects, to control vast numbers of people? Why do armed defence and security forces submit to the authority of the ruler? Particularly in the case of unpopular tyrants, this is not obvious.

These are the same questions explored by Machiavelli, but whereas Machiavelli sought exploit this knowledge to help “the prince” maintain power, de la Boetie has the opposite goal. He seeks a way for people to unshackle themselves from tyrannical rulers.

The answer de la Boetie comes to is that power flows from the bottom up. The ruler does not have power due to superior strength or intelligence, but due to the obedience of those he rules over. Obedience is the source of his power. Essentially, this means that the subservience of the populace is voluntary, if they simply withdraw their consent, they will be free.

Of course, the specifics of how this can be done are slightly more complicated. After years, even generations, of subjugation, the people may forget the blessings of liberty. The ruler will also use various devices and tricks to fool the people and buy their loyalty. He will also surround himself with layers of lesser tyrants share in the spoils of his rule. But all of his subjects ultimately suffer under his rule, and if they come to realise this, the tyrant will lose his power. This means that ideas and education are the primary and most powerful weapons in the fight against tyranny.

This work is significant for libertarians not so much because of any theoretical insights, but because it points a possible path to achieve the goal of a free society. It is about strategy, how to get from “here” to “there”. It is a peaceful strategy that is completely compatible with the non-aggression principle. All we need to do is to remove our consent, and we can be free.

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