Tenth Amendment Showdown: La Botie vs. Machiavelli

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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 funds.

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:

“[Roman] 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 endured.”

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

“The 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,

“It 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 Dishonest Abe 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 oppression.

Wrote la Boétie,

“Poor, 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.

“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? 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.

“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 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 inevitable.”

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.

John Bowman [send him mail] lives in Washington State.

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