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The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
La Boétie, Étienne de
1553, January 1
La Boétie cuts to the heart of what is, or rather should be, the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of civil disobedience. Why do people, in all times and places, obey the commands of government, which always constitutes a small minority of the society? To La Boétie the spectacle of general consent to despotism is puzzling and appalling.
— Murray Rothbard, from the Introduction
States are more vulnerable than people think. They can collapse in an instant—when consent is withdrawn.
This is the thesis of this thrilling book. Murray Rothbard writes a classic introduction to one of the great political essays in the history of ideas.
In times when dictators the world over are falling from pressure from their own people, this book, written nearly 500 years ago, is truly the prophetic tract of our times.
Étienne de La Boétie was born in Sarlat, in the Périgord region of southwest France, in 1530, to an aristocratic family, and became a dear friend of Michel de Montaigne. But he ought to be remembered for this astonishingly important essay, one of the greatest in the history of political thought. It will shake the way you think of the state. His thesis and argument amount to the best answer to Machiavelli ever penned as well as one of the seminal essays in defense of liberty.
La Boétie’s task is to investigate the nature of the state and its strange status as a tiny minority of the population that adheres to different rules from everyone else and claims the authority to rule everyone else, maintaining a monopoly on law. It strikes him as obviously implausible that such an institution has any staying power. It can be overthrown in an instant if people withdraw their consent.
He then investigates the mystery as to why people do not withdraw, given what is obvious to him that everyone would be better off without the state. This sends him on a speculative journey to investigate the power of propaganda, fear, and ideology in causing people to acquiesce in their own subjection. Is it cowardice? Perhaps. Habit and tradition. Perhaps. Perhaps it is ideological illusion and intellectual confusion.
La Boétie goes on to make a case as to why people ought to withdraw their consent immediately. He urges all people to rise up and cast off tyranny simply by refusing to concede that the state is in charge.
The tyrant has “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? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you?”
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