Tenth Amendment Showdown: La Boetie vs. Machiavelli

Email Print

One of the
very few things that virtually everyone in America will agree
on is a substantial degree of dissatisfaction with the state of
political affairs. In particular, I think everyone understands
that we, as a nation, somehow got on the wrong track, even without
an understanding of why that is, or, worse, if one believes or
repeats the perceived reasons from major political party mouthpieces.
On the other hand, many of us earnestly believe the primary reason
for this dissatisfaction is that government no longer adheres
to the binding rules set forth in the Constitution. And, let’s
face it, everyone, even illiterates, knows that’s true. At the
same time, there is a set of well-intentioned people who have
utter faith in the Constitution, yet have no idea why it is that
federal government can so easily ignore it. God bless public education,
because I was erroneously taught in grade school that an intricate
set of “checks and balances” was established by our Founders so
that the courts would protect our liberties from one or both the
Congress or the President. In fact, the original and only conceivable
“checks” on federal government are/were the States, which makes
the Tenth Amendment ground zero for anyone who desires to fix
modern problems of leviathan government. But as a result of a
bloody and vicious military coup fought 150 years ago on American
soil, the Tenth Amendment has been ever since comatose. There’s
the answer, really, why the government can so easily ignore the
Constitution. Without the Tenth Amendment, or rather the clear
allocation of powers it reaffirms, the Constitution can guarantee
nothing but it’s own eventual demise.

The very
recent revival of the Tenth Amendment on both popular and political
landscapes has underscored the ever-present demarcation between
liberty and statism. It has also brought to light an interesting
demarcation within the group of liberty-minded anti-statists.
In my own State of Washington, HJM 4009 has been introduced and
has had its first reading. It is very tame when compared to some
other State sovereignty bills, essentially merely reminding the
federal government that the Tenth Amendment exists and what can
be read on its face. I cannot imagine an excuse politicians —
notably ones who have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution
— could have to willfully, via active vote, reject this
bill that merely reaffirms a particular portion of the Constitution.
I could not imagine it, that is, until the Oklahoma fiasco. As
most know, the House and Senate of the State of Oklahoma passed
a resolution claiming sovereignty only to have it vetoed by governor
Henry with scarcely any rational defense for said action other
than not wasting precious legislative time (laugh all you want,
that’s what he said) or belatedly the far more palatable argument
that it might jeopardize federal funds that are dispersed to Oklahoma.
After overriding the veto, by a two-thirds majority in the House
(and a belief that the Senate will do the same), Republicans soothed
constituents that this resolution would not jeopardize federal

My question
is this: Do the fools not realize that they are merely recovering
a portion of their own property, and that these federal funds
could not be given them without having first been taken from them?
It really isn’t my question alone, but one penned, virtually verbatim,
almost 500 years ago by a revolutionary philosopher in the realm
of natural rights (and peaceful resistance) named, Étienne
de la Boétie.

To illustrate
how timely and relevant was la Boétie’s eloquence, consider
the full passage from The
Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon
of wine, and a sesterce: 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. A man might one day be
presented with a sesterce and gorge himself at the public feast,
lauding Tiberius and Nero for handsome liberality, who on the
morrow, would be forced to abandon his property to their avarice,
his children to their lust, his very blood to the cruelty of these
magnificent emperors, without offering any more resistance than
a stone or a tree stump. The mob has always behaved in this way
— eagerly open to bribes that cannot be honorably accepted, and
dissolutely callous to degradation and insult that cannot be honorably

myself, I first learned of la Boétie only recently, when
I stumbled upon the following quote by him:

fundamental political question is why do people obey a government.
The answer is that they tend to enslave themselves, to let themselves
be governed by tyrants. Freedom from servitude comes not from
violent action, but from the refusal to serve. Tyrants fall when
the people withdraw their support.”

I was amazed
at how advanced one’s philosophical framework must be in order
to construct the above statement in the 1550’s, as it encompasses
much of the beloved Lockean natural rights tenets. Sure enough,
a quick search revealed an essay devoted entirely to la Boétie
by none other than Murray Rothbard (full article here).
Rothbard concludes that while many commentators of the past have
illustrated great faith in central governments,

is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in government
today. In such an age as ours, thinkers like Étienne de
La Boétie have become far more relevant, far more genuinely
modern, than they have been for over a century.”

But I can
think of a set of actors who will happily propound unexamined
faith in government: the government itself, such as elected politicians
or appointed bureaucrats. However, given that the present sovereignty
movement is still in its infancy, there has not been much response
from the leviathan as yet, other than that from Obama’s acceptance
speech, uttered before the movement began in earnest, in which
the president-elect claimed in classic non-speak of the politician
where abstractions, not logic or truth, are all the supporting
evidence one needs, and further without any apparent understanding
that it was a brazen lie: that we have never been a collection
of individuals or a collection of red States and blue States,
rather, we are, and always will be the USA. Worse yet, he made
these remarks in the context of a question of whether or not the
dream of our Founders is still alive, no less. But then again,
it really was not a declaration by Obama alone, but the same lies
directed to a previous generation of Americans and to
(posthumously) sovereign South Carolina’s patriot, John C. Calhoun.

It remains
to be seen whether the present administration, like Lincoln in
his day, will attempt to stamp out the ideas of our Founders by
employing force against those who, despite other flaws (real or
perceived), still hold these ideas dear. And it’s no great leap
to realize that if such were to occur with Obama heading the executive,
as with Lincoln, it would be quite consistent with the advice
penned by Machiavelli, also about 500 years ago, only a few decades
before la Boétie. According to Machiavelli, when subjecting
a State that is accustomed to principles of freedom or liberty
(even the mere belief of freedom by Lysander Spooner’s “dupes”
if not its actual presence), the Prince essentially must destroy
that State (or alternatively live among them).

The ultimate
reasons behind America’s War between the States can be condensed
to a single issue, which is the very one that is resurfacing today:
The Tenth Amendment. So, while post-Lincoln era statists might
previously have thought they had settled this issue by using the
first plank of advice Machiavelli offered — destruction by attack
— they have not, it would seem. One can fill the Grand Canyon
and then some with verbal acrobats, tortured logic, propaganda,
and deception of those who make claims similar to Obama’s acceptance
speech, but every bit of it is nonsense. The Tenth Amendment exists,
and it actually means what it says. Of course States are sovereign.
Of course States can ignore edicts not among the few and enumerated
powers of the subservient (not master) federal government; or
even, if the People of a State so choose, leave the voluntary
union when the benefits of union are found to be outweighed by
onerous detriments. That’s what all the States and ‘The People’
thought they were getting when they ratified the Constitution.
And any with doubts, need only look to the very first sentence
of Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolve, or to Madison’s counterpart Virginia
Resolve, which address these very issues when related questions
arose for the first time in our nation’s history.

La Boétie
clearly believed violence was not necessary to overthrow the tyranny
of government. Rather, the people need only, as Rothbard summarizes,
stop supplying the government with the instruments of their own

Wrote la

wretched, and stupid peoples, nations determined on your own
misfortune and blind to your own good! You let yourselves be
deprived before your own eyes of the best part of your revenues;
your fields are plundered, your homes robbed, your family heirlooms
taken away. You live in such a way that you cannot claim a single
thing as your own; and it would seem that you consider yourselves
lucky to be loaned your property, your families, and your very
lives. All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends
upon you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you
yourselves render as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely
to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your
own bodies unto death. 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.

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?
What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with
the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the
murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves?
You sow your crops in order that he may ravage them, you install
and furnish your homes to give him goods to pillage; you rear
your daughters that he may gratify his lust; you bring up your
children in order that he may confer upon them the greatest
privilege he knows — to be led into his battles, to be delivered
to butchery, to be made the servants of his greed and the instruments
of his vengeance; you yield your bodies unto hard labor in order
that he may indulge in his delights and wallow in his filthy
pleasures; you weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger
and the mightier to hold you in check. From all these indignities,
such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can
deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely
by willing to be free.

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 into pieces.”

So la Boétie
describes what would happen if we simply stop supplying the instruments
of our own oppression to the oppressive government. Namely, if
we ended the Federal Reserve, ended the IRS, and for good measure
repealed the Sixteenth Amendment. Then the great Colossus would
tumble and shatter. All already assume none of those things are
achievable at the federal level. And therein lies the essence
of the demarcation between the otherwise unified anti-statists:
some feel it can be achieved peaceably, while others are resigned
to or at least expect violence. After all, said, JFK: “Those who
make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution

But imagine
if a single State asserted its Constitutional rights and followed
its own charters and mandates to protect its own citizens who
empower it from theft and fraud. Imagine if that single State
refused to collect oppressive taxes from its own people to ship
off to DC, which DC in turn dishonorably doles out as largess
to the most supplicant. Imagine if that single State called on
its own militia or a temporary posse, comprised of volunteers,
to expel any federal tax collector from its borders. Every other
State in the union would be forced to follow suit, if not by the
power of The People directly, then by rapid and unanimous exodus
of individuals and businesses eager to relocate to the nearest
“free” State. That is a peaceful solution worthy of la Boétie,
and why I strongly support any quest for State sovereignty or
Tenth Amendment affirmations as well as ideas like freestateproject.org.
The fear then is, will it be met by a Machiavellian response,
like was the case in 1860? It won’t if we have an educated, peaceful
society, which is a goal all Americans, I think, can agree.

16, 2009

Bowman [send him mail]
lives in Washington State.

Email Print