June 27, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

If I were to sum up the rousing message of Étienne de La Boétie’s 16th Century monograph, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, I would say we are not victims of the world we see. We have reversed cause and effect. Tyranny is not happening to us, it is happening because of us. 

Are we deceiving ourselves about our role in enabling our oppressors? As Murray Rothbard put it in his brilliant introduction to La Boétie’s Discourse, “[T]yranny must necessarily be grounded upon general public acceptance.” 

Even worse, was Aldous Huxley right that people would embrace with joy their oppression? As Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “[I]n Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

Huxley wrote, “[T]he greater part of the population is not very intelligent, dreads responsibility, and desires nothing better than to be told what to do.”

If you are not living in San Francisco or another dystopian city, walk around your town and notice how people are naturally cooperative and peaceful. You may wonder, as La Boétie did, 

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; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him.

“Put up with him rather than contradict him” has always been a human tendency and something we are all too familiar with. 

La Boétie’s Discourse was influenced by the Greek philosopher Plutarch’s essay “On Compliancy.” Michael Fontaine, a classics professor at Cornell, is working on a new translation of “On Compliancy.” In a series of talks, one public, Fontaine explains that Plutarch explored dysopia (not to be confused with dystopia). Dysopia is both an emotional “feeling of being pressured and bullied” and an “act of caving to an improper or inappropriate request.” Haven’t we all experienced dysopia when someone asks something unreasonable of us, and against our better judgment we do it anyway.

Plutarch was not necessarily writing about coercive interactions where force is applied; he was focused on situations where “it’s in your power to say no.” Perhaps you attended a workplace meeting in which someone proposed the unvaccinated be fired. Did you lead in the cheering? Did you lend your consent by saying nothing in opposition? Did you argue against vaccine mandates for students whose risks from the vaccine likely exceeded any benefits? Did you support the rights of others to make their own medical decisions? 

La Boétie correctly observed that we are “traitors” to ourselves by cooperating in our oppression:

He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? 

La Boétie implored, “Resolve to serve no more.” He continued, “I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces?”

La Boétie recognized that there are few at the core of power but that the core employs hundreds who employ thousands who today employ millions “in order that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the proper time.”

Today, government has its tentacles everywhere and employs a significant percentage of the population. How can we withdraw consent? If we don’t pay taxes, we may end up in court even if we are Hunter Biden. 

At first glance, La Boétie’s analysis may seem to offer no actionable path forward to topple today’s tyrants. Yet, look again.

Where we need to withdraw our consent is from the apologists for the State. Rothbard explained,  

La Boétie highlights the point that this consent is engineered, largely by propaganda beamed at the populace by the rulers and their intellectual apologists. The devices-of bread and circuses, of ideological mystification-that rulers today use to gull the masses and gain their consent, remain the same as in La Boétie’s days. The only difference is the enormous increase in the use of specialized intellectuals in the service of the rulers. But in this case, the primary task of opponents of modem tyranny is an educational one: to awaken the public to this process, to demystify and desanctify the State apparatus.

Today it may not be easy to withdraw consent from the government. Still, we can withdraw consent from the government’s contemporary courtiers—the academics, journalists, pundits, experts, influencers, and administrators who, as Rothbard wrote, “gull the masses to gain their consent.” 

These “apologists” mainly treat you disrespectfully; they claim to be oracles and tell you have no capacity to understand their dogmas. They appeal to their expertise and authority yet offer little evidence. They lust for money and power not earned by serving consumers but by lording over consumers. The principles that enable humanity to flourish mean nothing to them. The antidote is to ignore them or pull back the curtain to expose their empty rhetoric. Shut off the television and spend your summer evenings with your loved ones or a good book that strengthens your moral courage.

Fontaine, translating Plutarch, asks us to overcome our dysopia by noticing our tendency to be a “people-pleaser” and regaining the power of saying no.

La Boétie offered a pathway to finding our moral courage. Tyrants, he observed, are never loved nor loving. Genuine friendship, he observed, is “never developed except between persons of character, and never takes root except through mutual respect; it flourishes not so much by kindnesses as by sincerity.” We are sure of our friends when we have “knowledge of [their] integrity.” 

Neither tyrants nor apologists act with integrity. Developing our character by respecting the autonomy of others is a pathway to liberty. Plutarch argued, and La Boétie would have agreed, “caving in exacerbates problems rather than solves them.” There will be no Wizard of Oz solution. We cannot merely click our heels three times and be back to “the land of the free.” Merely reading La Boétie frees no one. As the poet William Blake wrote, our manacles are mind-forged. With a mindset shift, we become impervious to our dysopia. As more of us withdraw consent, a dystopian future can be averted. 

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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