You may download the HARRY KURZ translation (with an introduction by MURRAY N. ROTHBARD) by clicking here: The_Politics_of_Obedience–Discourse_of_Voluntary_Servitude_1553_by_Etienne_de_la_Boetie
Courtesy of John-Henry Hill, M.D., Ph.D.
How to Defeat Tyranny: Active Disobedience
We Are All Voluntary Slaves: A Lesson on How to Defeat Tyranny
by John-Henry Hill, M.D.
December 27, 2012
Re-published: June 24, 2017
Adapted from: “The Politics of Obedience: Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” by Etienne De La Boetie (a law-philosophy student in France in 1552.)
“If we ever pass out as a great nation we ought to put on our tombstone, ‘America died from a delusion that she has moral leadership.’” – Will Rogers (1879-1935) American Humorist, Actor and Author
“Necessity and expediency are NOT legitimate excuses for violating the Constitution you swore to uphold and protect – even during a ‘crisis’”. – Alexander Hamilton (1st Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington)
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” —John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Economist and Political Philosopher, [On Liberty (1859) 1977:220]
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” – Frederick Douglass
“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.” Henry L. Mencken (1880-1956), Journalist and Author
We are reluctant to admit that we owe our liberties to men of a type that today we HATE and FEAR — unruly men, disturbers of the peace, men who resent and denounce what Whitman called ‘the insolence of elected persons’ – in word FREE MEN…” Gerald W. Johnson (1890-1980), American Journalist and Author
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” — Thomas Jefferson
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
THE PROBLEM is “VOLUNTARY SLAVERY”
We have all become “Voluntary Slaves” to systems of government and social institutions we dislike, to greater or lesser degrees. To ancient Romans the word “system” referred to the city sewers, so we today live in a government sewer. Not that we knowingly and willingly volunteered to do so; we merely acquiesce – we “go along”. It is the world into which we were born. In the film “The Truman Show” with actor Jim Carrey, the show’s “creator” and producer Cristof (of Christ ???) explained why Truman, whose entire life has been broadcast as a TV show, never questioned the authenticity of his world: “We all accept the world we are born into – it’s as simple as that.” But like the Truman (True Man) character, we all sense that something is wrong. Our reason and inherent common sense – what many call a “gut feeling” – tell us that the system is corrupt and unjust. If only we would listen to our inner voice of reason!
Who among us would pay the numerous and ever-increasing taxes and fees that are levied by our governments if we were not forced to do so under threats of fines and imprisonment – or worse? What American is not afraid of the IRS, even though all the federal income taxes collected are deposited by the Secretary of the Treasury into a privately-owned corporation in Puerto Rico and thereafter distributed among foreign creditors of the U.S. government to pay for the interest (and ONLY the interest) on America’s national debt. Who would willingly pay to huge corporations the inflated prices demanded for such basic necessities of life as food, electricity, water and fuel to heat our homes? We are further required, under the same threats of violence, to obey statutes, codes and regulations (so-called “laws”) created at the arbitrary whims of our rulers and which we find ridiculous and even hurtful to us. If you were driving your child to the hospital during a life-threatening emergency and came to a very long “red” traffic light on a deserted road, would you wait until the light turned “green”? By all logic waiting for the “green” light, thereby risking your child’s life, makes no sense – it defies reason and our innate common sense! (I am reminded of a cartoon of many years ago where a man sitting on a camel in the middle of a bleak desert waits at a traffic light – a similar scene was in Mel Brooks’ comedy-western film, “Blazing Saddles”, in which a posse on horseback are stopped at a toll-gate in the middle of nowhere. Instead of simply riding around the toll-gate, the character played by actor Slim Pickens shouts, “Somebody go back to town and get a shitload of dimes!”) But there are many among us who would wait – in fact most people will wait. As “law-abiding Americans”, most people would not even think of ignoring the traffic light – and the few people who did ignore it would feel guilty for doing so! Why? Because it is the “law”? Because we should instead seek redress through the courts within our “justice system”, a device clearly controlled by the government rulers? Is it some type of “herd mentality” that controls our behavior and even our thoughts? In short, why do we obey any government when its demands are arbitrary, excessive, hurtful and defy common sense?
I am a retired physician and medical researcher, so I have a lot of time to indulge in reading everything I come across on the Internet regarding politics, law and history. Not that I am smart – I simply do not like to watch football, etc. on TV. It was only recently that I stumbled upon a brief essay that “explained it all” in fewer than 25 pages. Surprisingly, although it was written by a law-philosophy student in France in 1552, it applies to our political institutions today. It is called, “The Politics of Obedience: Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” by Etienne De La Boetie.
Boetie said there are three types of tyrants: those that rule by conquest or force of arms, those that rule by inheritance (royalty) and those that rule through elections by the people. Of these he felt that an elected leader was the most tyrannical since he never wishes to relinquish his power, even though required to do so upon completion of his term of office. Having tasted power, few men in government wish to yield that power. Today in America we change presidents, senators and representative (not to mention state and local leaders) every few years, but our governments continue their maltreatment of the people regardless of which political party gains power. Why do We the People tolerate this servitude and often even misery?
“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.”
Boetie’s asserted that we tolerate this voluntary servitude by custom and habit. A “Man from Mars” might wonder, How could one man (or small group of men) possibly rule with such maltreatment such great numbers of people? Or as Boetie said, “Who could really believe that one man alone may mistreat a hundred thousand and deprive them of their liberty? When not a hundred, not a thousand men, but a hundred provinces, a thousand cities, a million men, refuse to assail a single man from whom the kindest treatment received is the infliction of serfdom and slavery, what shall we call that? Is it cowardice?” Boetie’s answer was “No”, it was simply that people were accustomed to condition, as were their fathers, grandfathers and so on. “Two, possibly ten, may fear one [man]; but when a thousand, a million men, a thousand cities, fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth, any more than valor can be termed the effort of one individual to scale a fortress, to attack an army, or to conquer a kingdom. What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even deserve to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found vile enough, which nature herself disavows and our tongues refuse to name?” The masses of people become slaves through custom and habit, reinforced by their leader’s exploitation of the people’s own apathy, indifference and laziness. The main reason we so willingly take orders from authority is that we are born submissive serfs, reared as submissive serfs, educated to remain submissive serfs and trained to work as submissive serfs.
What tools does a leader or government use to keep us in servitude? It is obvious that one man cannot control all the people by himself. The ruler must have the assistance of some of the people among us: first are the ruling elite, followed by a large bureaucracy. the police and a military – each created in hierarchical fashion of rank and class with corresponding levels of rewards. These organizations of servants must be ever-enlarging; not to accomplish anything of substance, but simply to make more and more people dependent on government for their livelihood and status. The police and military cannot exist solely for the protection of the rulers, since history has proved repeatedly that no ruler is truly safe; that if a ruler is greatly despised, he can be deposed or assassinated without much effort (usually by someone in his inner circle). “The torment in which tyrants find themselves when obliged to fear everyone because they do evil unto every man … not daring to entrust weapons in the hands of their own people, whom they have wronged.”
The servants closest to the ruler, the ruling elite (both in and out of government), remain few in number and are controlled by means of what Boetie called “special privileges and large gifts”. Boetie ironically noted: “Men accept servility in order to acquire wealth; as if they could acquire anything of their own when they cannot even assert that they belong to themselves, or as if anyone could possess under a tyrant a single thing in his own name. Yet they act as if their wealth really belonged to them, and forget that it is they themselves who give the ruler the power to deprive everybody of everything, leaving nothing that anyone can identify as belonging to somebody.” Within this ruling elite (most of whom are usually not even formal members of the ruler’s government) are “only four or five who maintain the dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him. Five or six have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his cruelties, companions in his pleasures, panders to his lusts, and sharers in his plunders. These six manage their chief so successfully that he comes to be held accountable not only for his own misdeeds but even for theirs.” Under the authority of the ruling elite next come the bureaucrats, police and military. Boetie observed: “The six [ruling elites] have six hundred who profit under them, and with the six hundred they do what they have accomplished with their tyrant. The six hundred maintain under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the proper time and working such havoc all around that they could not last except under the shadow of the six hundred, nor be exempt from law and punishment except through their influence. The consequence of all this is fatal indeed. And whoever is pleased to unwind the skein will observe that not the six thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.”
Obviously the ruling elite and those we today call “public servants” must be paid their “special privileges and large gifts” – some might say, bribes – to maintain their allegiance to the ruler and his government. These gifts from the ruler – extracted from the masses of people – may come as pay, tax breaks and grants. Some among the masses of people often receive gifts as well: welfare, food stamps, and the too-numerous-to-count government programs giving people something for “FREE”, even though the people themselves ultimately pay for it! “Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce [an ancient Roman coin]: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, “Long live the King!” 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 that cannot be honorably accepted.” Clearly, we ALL want “our share” of the government pie – a pie we ourselves provided to government!
However, the ruler system creates universal anxiety. The ruler can have no friends; he can never fully trust anyone or feel completely secure in his power. ”The fact is that the tyrant is never truly loved, nor does he love… there can be no friendship where there is cruelty, where there is disloyalty, where there is injustice.” The ancients wrote: To rule as king is to be alone. Today we say: “It is lonely at the top.” The ruling elite live under similar anxieties as the ruler – “in places where the wicked gather there is conspiracy only, not companionship: these have no affection for one another; fear alone holds them together; they are not friends, they are merely accomplices.” Yet who among us would not accept these “special privileges and large gifts” from the ruler? After all, why work for a living when you can obtain wealth and status with little or no effort? “These wretches see the glint of the despot’s treasures and are bedazzled by the radiance of his splendor. Drawn by this brilliance they come near, without realizing they are approaching a flame that cannot fail to scorch them.” Only later do the ruling elite understand fully that the ruler, upon his mere whim, can take from them all they possess. ”The favorites of a tyrant can never feel entirely secure, and the less so because he [the ruler] has learned from them that he is all powerful and unlimited by any law or obligation.” Even if a member of the ruling elite manages to remain in the good graces of the current ruler, what about the ruler’s successor – the next president, prime minister, king, queen, or dictator? How can any person, even among the highest of the ruling elite, ever feel truly secure in his and his family’s wealth and status now or in the future? “Even admitting that favorites may at times escape from the hands of him they serve, they are never safe from the ruler who comes after him. If he is good, they must render an account of their past and recognize at last that justice exists; if he is bad and resembles their late master, he [the next ruler] will certainly have his own favorites, who are not usually satisfied to occupy in their turn merely the posts of their predecessors, but will more often insist on their wealth and their lives.” Of course, the great lie underpinning our system is that we own nothing – our government can take our property on a whim. Even if you have fully paid off the mortgage on your home, simply look at the deed and you will see that you are probably listed as a “tenant-in-common” with “fee simple” title or “title in equity” – and a tenant is someone who pays rent and taxes. A true owner with “allodial” title pays no rent or taxes. As the actor Peter Fonda stated, “Try not paying your taxes and find out who owns your house.”
In addition to gifts and privileges to his ruling elite, the ruler employs another tool. He creates and maintains a remoteness from the people, thereby creating a mystique and aura of the leader being “special” simply by being INACCESSIBLE to the public masses. “The earliest kings of Egypt rarely showed themselves without carrying a cat, or sometimes a branch, or appearing with fire on their heads, masking themselves with these objects and parading like workers of magic. By doing this they inspired their subjects with reverence and admiration … It is pitiful to review the list of devices that early despots used to establish their tyranny; to discover how many little tricks they employed, always finding the populace conveniently gullible.” Tyrants and despots have “always fooled their victims so easily that, while mocking them, they enslaved them the more.” Today when a president, a queen or a prime minister goes out in public, the remoteness is maintained: they travel in limousines with darkly-tinted windows and near which the masses are not allowed. Even when simply playing golf, a president and the people are kept apart. And on rare occasions when the ruler is seen by the people, his appearance is an occasion of great ceremony, accompanied by symbols and pageantry. Today we have ceremonies such as royal coronations, presidential inaugurations, state-of-the-union speeches and proclamations to the nation – all on prime-time TV. The symbols of the ruler’s specialness” appear: the presidential seal, a king or queen’s crown and throne, flags, ornate offices and buildings, monuments and statues. His servants address the ruler by such titles as the “Leader of the Free World”, “Mr. President”, “Her Majesty the Queen” or “His Eminence The Pope” – and in turn the ruling elite are addressed by such titles as Senator, Congressman, Mr. Chief Justice, CEO of XYZ corporation, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Secretary of the ABC Department, Ambassador and so on. After all, without a title, you must be a “nobody” – just one of the people.
Even when simply traveling the ruler, whose life is somehow deemed of greater value than ours, uses special transportation: the president’s plane “Air Force One”, the royal carriage, the royal yacht, the presidential helicopter, not to mention the gaggle of limousines surrounded by hordes of police, “Secret Service” and innumerable security vehicles. Upon arriving at the ceremony, special guards (usually outfitted in ridiculously ornate uniforms) stand to salute the ruler, while offering no real protection – they are part of the show! Visualize, if you will, the queen’s Royal Guards at Buckingham Palace in London. Or the almost clownish formality of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia – why are they wearing such ornate costumes while guarding dead people? Boetie noted, “Whoever thinks that halberds, sentries, the placing of the watch, serve to protect and shield tyrants is, in my judgment, completely mistaken. These are used, it seems to me, more for ceremony and a show of force than for any reliance placed in them.” Some rulers even encourage the development of a cult-like admiration, often extending into myth and religion such as “the divine right of kings”, the myths about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and the god-like status of the later Egyptian pharaohs. Boetie observed: “Tyrants themselves have wondered that men could endure the persecution of a single man; they have insisted on using RELIGION for their own protection and, where possible, have borrowed a stray bit of divinity to bolster up their evil ways.”
In a well-informed and enlightened society, the tools described above could not long maintain a ruler’s tyranny, for eventually the people will become disenchanted, less productive – and even may question the injustice of the system under which they live and challenge the authority of the government. The ruler cannot allow this to happen. Thousands of years ago rulers learned that entertainment and amusements divert the people’s attention away from truly important issues affecting their lives. Boetie noted: “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.” Over thousands of years not much has changed – today we have our mass-media, professional sports, TV, computer games, alcohol and drugs, activities, pastimes and pleasures that keep us too busy to notice, much less act upon, the public issues which so greatly affect our lives. By our many entertainments (may I call them “circuses”?) and diversions we are truly similar to the peoples of centuries past. “By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.”
Ancient rulers also understood the truth in the adage “Divide and Conquer”. They recognized the importance of distracting and dividing the people by income, race and class differences, and through political affiliations (parties). Boetie: “Thus the despot subdues his subjects, some of them by means of others, and thus is he protected by those from whom, if they were decent men, he would have to guard himself; just as, in order to split wood, one has to use a wedge of the wood itself.” To ensure that the masses of people, in their misery and oppression, never challenge the authority of the ruler, the ruler must deflect all blame onto some of his servants, including the ruling elite and the bureaucracy; OR onto forces and peoples outside his kingdom or government – foreigners. The ruler also blames those who challenge his policies, applying such labels as malcontents, hippies, trouble makers, protesters, conspiracy theorists, home-grown terrorists, etc. Likewise the ruler blames foreign rulers and foreign peoples for the misery that he himself created among the masses of his own people – even to the extent of starting wars. The successful ruler will deflect all blame from himself in order that ”the people never blame the tyrant for the evils they suffer, but they do place responsibility on those who influence him; peoples, nations, all compete with one another, even the peasants, even the tillers of the soil, in mentioning the names of the favorites, in analyzing their vices, and heaping upon them a thousand insults, a thousand obscenities, a thousand maledictions. All their prayers, all their vows are directed against these persons; they hold them accountable for all their misfortunes, their pestilences, their famines.” Meanwhile the tyrant remains safely in power.
Past rulers also recognized the power behind money, even “fake money” created by the ruler himself as paper currency or coins of otherwise worthless metals. As Boetie stated, “What comment can I make concerning another fine counterfeit that ancient peoples accepted as true money?” Boetie wondered by what magic a piece of paper, a coin of worthless metal or a piece of wood (English “tally stick”) obtain real value? Boetie queried, “They [the people] believed firmly that the great toe of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, performed miracles and cured diseases … In this wise that a foolish people itself invents lies and then believes them.” Does an otherwise worthless object obtain its value simply because the ruler has decreed this paper, metal or wood to be the only form of money acceptable as payment for taxes? By definition, something of “real value” is something upon which people place value because of its utility, something they need and can use in their daily lives. Otherwise, why would any people possessing reason and common sense accept as money objects possessing no real usefulness? Such trinkets are NOT money – they are, at most, convenient tokens for mere promises to pay you something of REAL usefulness at a later date. Can you say “Federal Reserve note”, today’s official U.S. Dollar?
Finally, among the most useful tools employed by tyrants and governments are propaganda and speeches, the “power of persuasion” through the manipulation of words evoking passion instead of reason within the people. As Boetie observed in 1552, rulers and governments of all types “do not behave very differently: they never undertake an unjust policy, even one of some importance, without prefacing it with some pretty speech concerning public welfare and common good.”
The important question now becomes: How can we escape this voluntary servitude? Or, are we Americans are fond of saying, How can we get government off our backs? In early America our ancestors modeled their society and governments on Christian principles whereby their God, as the creator of all things including man, was the Sovereign and Master of all things, including man. Likewise, man was the sovereign and master of all things he created. Consequently, in America, We the People, as the creators of our local state and federal governments and institutions, were considered the sovereigns and masters of those governments and institutions. As with God, no master or sovereign serves his subjects, else he ceases to be master and sovereign. Until the early 20th century We the People were considered as master and sovereign over our creation: the government. I have attempted to explain how today this relationship has been turned on its head – how the people are now expected to obey every command issued by our supposed servants, the government. Indeed, many Americans today are grateful that the governments seize only 60 percent of their income as taxes and fees! Elections most certainly have made no improvements, despite the promises made every 4 years! – the extortion by government and misery of We the People increase relentlessly. But is a violent revolution really necessary to rid ourselves of the tyranny? If VIOLENT ACTION were required, Boetie knew that most men would not participate since they are not men of action; they dislike the time and effort involved and the risk of losing whatever little they possess. In the 20th century the common adage was, “You can’t beat city hall.” Boetie concluded that not only was violent action not required, no action at all is required – only non-action through non-compliance. He wrote, “Obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself.” Boetie, unlike most Americans today, recognized the important distinction between a country (the people) and a government (the ruler and the ruling elite).
Boetie implored, “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. 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 in pieces.”
If you do not like what the government does, simply refuse to cooperate. You do not like paying taxes, fees and fines? Then do not pay them! You do not like having to constantly renew this or that license or registration or permit or whatever? Then do not renew them! You do not like paying for parking and traffic tickets? Then ignore them – toss them into the trash! Of course some people might object. “What if EVERYONE did that?” My answers are: 1) Great! Then we would have less government bothering us and stealing our money. 2.) If “everyone did that”, then you would be a fool NOT to do likewise, if it is in your own best interest. I have little hope for the current generations of adults – we are too bound up in our own indulgences, pastimes and apathy; too bound by custom and habit. The motto of adult Americans appears to be: “As it is now, so must it be forever.” My hope lies with those who are too young to have been indoctrinated, distracted or “bought off” by the rulers. Not because they are more courageous than we, but because they will experience such hardship and misery in the coming years that they will not tolerate our rulers and system of government any longer – that they will rebel, not with the sword, but by simple non-cooperation. There is no need for violent revolution; no need even to walk the streets carrying a protest sign. As Boetie concluded centuries ago, they need only resolve to serve no more: to refuse to pay taxes and fees and fines, to refuse to obey so-called “laws” that violate our own powers of reason and common sense. They will cease ALL cooperation with government in any manner; and at once they will be freed.
Now, turn off your computer and go watch the football game on TV!
END OF ESSAY
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