tienne de la Botie: A Review

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While reading
Carl Watner's fine collection of essays, I
Must Speak Out
, I became engrossed in Murray N. Rothbard's
1987 article entitled, "The
Political Thought of Étienne de la Boétie
I couldn't believe it, so I read it again. Where have I been sleeping
all these years? Why haven't I heard of tienne de la Botie before?
Just on the off chance that some of you may have missed him
too, I'd like to call attention to him again.

La Boetie
was born in France in 1530. Copernicus and Martin Luther were still
living at the time and Francois I was King. He wrote his little
treatise on government sometime in the 1550s. He died in 1563.

was struck by the man's youthful genius and by the clarity of his
thinking. He saw him as a harbinger of libertarian thinking to come.
I fully agree and I recommend reading Rothbard's article. I was
also struck by something else and I would like to put a short quotation
in here to illustrate what I mean.

Politics of Obedience:
Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

by Étienne de la Boétie

It is indeed
the nature of the populace, whose density is always greater in the
cities, to be suspicious toward one who has their welfare at heart,
and gullible toward one who fools them. Do not imagine that there
is any bird more easily caught by decoy, nor any fish sooner fixed
on the hook by wormy bait, than are all these poor fools neatly
tricked into servitude by the slightest feather passed, so to speak,
before their mouths. Truly it is a marvelous thing that they let
themselves be caught so quickly at the slightest tickling of their
fancy. 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.

Bread and circuses.
Americans would laugh at the idea that they could be duped into
slavery by such trivia. Americans are much too smart for that. Besides,
we have television and movies and stereo surround-sound, we don't
need the Emperor to entertain us. That's true, but we do believe
we need other things, like courts and cops, the Pentagon, Social
Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and all of the alphabet-soup agencies,
the IRS, CIA, FBI, NSA, BATF, FCC, on and on.

want the good life and there is no fault in that. I too want indoor
plumbing, central air and heat, a microwave oven, car, refrigerator,
television, computer, privacy, and safe streets like everybody else.
It's the way we live. But is there a price on the good life that
we refuse to see? And is this price our liberty?

La Boetie
in the Sixteenth Century pointed out the hidden cost of political
government. As long as we believe that the things we want come by
benevolent kindness from the state, then we quietly acquiesce to
various demands from the state and the price keeps going up. The
state speaks eloquently about tax-cuts and moves us to cheers, but
the taxes keep going up. The state does not speak about average
families who must buy food and medication on credit because their
wages are gone in Social Security and Medicare and sales taxes and
income taxes and fees paid for permission from the state to eat
or drink or drive around. The state does not speak about the source
of the soaring cost of health-care, the result of bureaucratic micro-mismanagement
put in place by the state itself. La Boetie called us fools. Indeed,
we are. We look longingly for the day we can have our good life
and our Social Security check too without working for it anymore.
Free lunch! Bread and circuses for all!

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.

The problem
is, socialism by any name doesn't work for very long. People loose
incentive and begin to look for hand-outs from their state rather
than take care of themselves. La Boetie wrote:

Roman tyrants
invented a further refinement. They often provided the city wards
with feasts to cajole the rabble, always more readily tempted by
the pleasure of eating than by anything else. The most intelligent
and understanding amongst them would not have quit his soup bowl
to recover the liberty of the Republic of Plato.

While meditating
briefly on the meaning of life this morning, as I do every morning,
I happened to glance down at my reading table and I saw a photograph
of a group of my peers all dressed in the tee-shirt of a powerful
political interest group. The ladies all looked so lovely in their
tightly-permed silver hair and the men so handsome and proud, though
bald, like me. But their mouths were tightly drawn, not smiling,
and their fists clenched and arms raised in anger. Not so good for
blood pressure, I thought, what are these people doing? I read the
article. Ah, they demand more! More of everything! And they want
the state to give it to them!

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.

Boetie knew what he was talking about. Have we, the human race,
learned nothing about the nature of human government in the last
four-hundred and fifty years? Have we not repeated the mistakes
of our ancestors over and over and over? Our science and our technology
have thrust our species into an entirely new social environment,
unprecedented in human history, and still we beg the state for bread
and circuses while the state crushes us with its rules and taxes.
Do we really need the state?

La Boetie
may be the first person in history to come up with an elegant solution
to the problem of the state, non-violent civil disobedience. Quit
feeding the monster. For this Rothbard justly praises him. I do
hope that you will read them both.

11, 2001

Klassen [send him mail]
retired from a forty-year career in critical-care respiratory therapy.
He is the author of five books, including Atlantis:
A Novel about Economic Government
and Economic
, which describe a solution
to the problem of political government. Here’s
his web site.

Best of Robert Klassen

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