Why Most People Embrace the State — And Why Some Will Always Reject It

[From “Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals In Social Change Toward Laissez Faire” in The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Fall 1990]

Why, La Boétie cries out in anguish, why, when reason teaches us the justice of natural rights and equal liberty for all, why, when even animals display a natural instinct to be free, is man, “the only creature really born to be free, [lacking] the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?”7 Why, in short, are people steeped in such a “vile” and “monstrous vice” as consenting to their own subjection?

La Boétie answers, first, that the difficult act of initially establishing tyrannical State power is accomplished through some form of conquest, either by a foreign power, an internal coup, or by the use of a wartime emergency as an excuse to fasten a permanent despotism upon the public. And why then do people continue to consent?

In the first place, explains La Boétie, there is the insidious power of habit, which quickly accustoms and inures the public to any institution, including its own enslavement.

It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why 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, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they are born. …

Thus humanity’s natural drive for liberty is overpowered by the force of custom, “for the reason that native endowment, no matter how good, is dissipated unless encouraged, whereas environment always shapes us in its own way. …” Hence, people will

grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way.8

And so consent of the public need not be eager or enthusiastic, but rather of the resigned “death and taxes” variety. But second, the State apparatus need not wait for the slow workings of custom; consent can also be engineered. La Boétie proceeds to discuss the various devices by which rulers engineer such consent. One time-honored device is circuses, for the entertainment of the masses:

Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects … that the stupified peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures, … learned subservience as naively, bit not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.9

Another important device for gaining the consent of the public is duping them into believing that the rule of the tyrant is wise, just, and benevolent. In modern times, La Boétie notes, rulers “never undertake an unjust policy, even one of some importance, without prefacing it with some pretty speech concerning public welfare and common good.” Reinforcing ideological propaganda is deliberate mystification. Thus the ancient kings set up the idea in the minds of the public that they were above ordinary humans and close to gods. Symbols of mystery and magic were woven around the Crown, so that “by doing this they inspired their subjects with reverence and admiration.” Sometimes tyrants have gone so far as to impute to themselves the very status of divinity. In this way, “tyrants, in order to strengthen their power, have made every effort to train their people not only in obedience and servility toward themselves, but also in adoration.10

Circuses, specious ideology, mystery — in addition to these purely propagandistic devices, rulers have used another strategem to obtain the consent of their subjects: purchase by material benefits, bread as well as circuses. The distribution of largesse to the people is a particularly cunning method of duping them into believing that they benefit from tyrannical rule. For

the fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them. … The mob has always behaved in this way — eagerly open to bribes.11

Finally, La Boétie comes to another highly important and original contribution to political theory: the broadening of the concept of tyranny from one man to an entire State apparatus. This is the establishment, as it were, by permanent and continuing purchase, of a stable hierarchy of subordinate allies, a loyal band of retainers, praetorians, and bureaucrats. La Boétie considers this factor “the mainspring and secret of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny.” For here is a large sector of society that is not merely duped with occasional negligible handouts from the State; but who make a handsome and permanent living out of the proceeds of despotism. Hence, their stake in despotism is not dependent on illusion, habit, or mystery, but is all too great and real. In this way, an elaborate hierarchy of patronage from the fruits of plunder is created and maintained. A large number of men thus permeate down through the ranks of society, and “cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.” In short, “all 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.” It is true that they, too, are subjects and suffer at their leader’s hands, but in return for that subjection, these subordinates are permitted to oppress the remainder of the public.12

On deeper reflection, then, the strategy for the achievement of liberty is not so simple; for even though mass civil disobedience is the master key, how is the public to be brought to such an action, blinded as they are by a network of habit, propaganda, and special privilege? But La Boétie does not despair. For one thing, not all the public is deluded or sunk into habitual submission. Environment may influence, but it does not determine; for, in contrast to “the brutish mass,” there is always a more percipient remnant, an elite who will understand the reality of the situation: “There are always a few, better endowed than others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off.” These are people who possess clear and far-sighted minds, who will never disappear from the earth: “Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it.” It is true that rulers invariably attempt to control and suppress genuine education in their realms, depriving the elite of freedom of speech and action, and thereby of making converts. But still, there are always heroic leaders who can arise from the mass, leaders who will not fail “to deliver their country from evil hands.” This knowledgeable and valiant elite, then, will form the vanguard of the revolutionary resistance movement. Through a process of educating and rousing the public to the truth, they will give back to the people knowledge of the blessings of liberty and expose the myths and illusions fostered by the State. Furthermore, they will be helped, as La Boétie indicates, by the fact that even the privileged courtiers and favorites lead miserable, cringing lives and that therefore at least some of them will join the popular resistance and thereby split the ruling elite.13

Étienne La Boétie was therefore the first modern libertarian theorist, who also — and remarkably — offered a strategic theory that stemmed logically from his analysis of the groundwork of State power. But what did he personally do about it? Did he, to use Marxian jargon, unite theory and praxis in his own life? Certainly not; ironically, La Boétie demonstrated that he may have been a member of a knowledgeable elite but scarcely a valiant one. Not publishing the Discourse, he took his appointed place in the ruling elite; and as Professor Keohane states, “Whether he ever mused on the irony of finding himself a prominent part of the network he had once condemned so scathingly, we cannot know.”14

  • 7. Etienne de La Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975), 51–53.
  • 8. La Boétie, Discourse, 60–65. As David Hume was to put it two hundred years later: “Habit soon consolidates what other principles of human nature had imperfectly founded; and men, once accustomed to obedience, never think of departing from that path, in which they and their ancestors have constantly trod. …” Hume, “Of the Origins of Government,” in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (Oxford University Press, 1963).
  • 9. La Boétie, Discourse, 69–70.
  • 10. La Boétie, Discourse, 71–75.
  • 11. La Boétie, Discourse, 70.
  • 12. La Boétie, Discourse, 77–80. John Lewis considered this insight to be the most novel and important feature of the Discourse. John D. Lewis, “The Development of the Theory of Tyrannicide to 1660,” Oscar Jaszi and Lewis, Against the Tyrant: The Tradition and Theory of Tyrannicde (Glencoe, Ill: The Free Press, 1957), 56–57.
  • 13. La Boétie, Discourse, 65–68, 79–86.
  • 14. Nannerl I. Keohane, “The Radical Humanism of Étienne de La Boétie,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 38 (January-March 1977): 129.

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