Why Men Follow Masters

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History has born out that Thomas Jefferson was wrong when he wrote that all men came into this world with certain "unalienable rights." As it turns out, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" have proved to be nothing more than the pipe dreams of a generation of crackpots, traitors, and rebels, men we would now call "terrorists" and "insurgents" because they dared shoot at an occupying army, its mercenaries, and its collaborators. Servitude is now ingrained, in vogue, and even laudable behavior among many.

For Americans, servitude to the nation-state commenced with the Union victory over the Confederate States. The permanence of war for empire and government-created economic crises in the twentieth century has accelerated the enslavement of Americans. Hordes of bureaucrats now enforce the will of the tyrannical state, depriving Americans of their life, liberty, and property with increasing impunity. Troubling as this evolution of history has been, it would not have been possible without the cooperation of Americans to make it happen.

To discover why Americans, who loudly and regularly proclaim to the world that they are the "freest" people on earth, have been willing participants in their own enslavement for several generations running, we must look to an obscure sixteenth-century text.

Etienne de la Boétie penned The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude while a law student at the University of Orléans in the early 1550s. Short, easy to read, and drawing on historical examples, la Boétie philosophized on a simple yet dangerous question for his time: why do people obey government? That he never published it and that it made the intellectual rounds in secrecy says volumes about the punishment that would have rained down from government had such a plague of ideas infected the obedient minds of the common people.

Contrary to Jefferson's premise in the Declaration of Independence, all men are born "serfs" to a degree. From the moment they take their first breath, men become dependent on their parents for survival. Men at first cannot procure the essentials of life without assistance; this takes years of nurturing. If not for loving and responsible parents, all men would quickly starve long before they could ever lift themselves up and provide their own subsistence. La Boétie recognized this and explained man's condition of servitude to the state as nothing more than part of his upbringing by parents, themselves long-conditioned to serve the state.

La Boétie said "men take orders willingly" because "they are born serfs and are reared as such." To la Boétie, servitude to the state throughout history had been conditioned since birth and passed from one generation to the next. What else could explain why so many people, populating the many kingdoms, nations, and countries that have ever existed, could allow the state, always composed of a minority of the whole of any people, to oppress, steal, and murder, with nary a peep for most of the annals of history?

According to la Boétie, "Men are like handsome race horses who first bite the bit and later like it," and even "learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance proudly beneath their trappings." They "grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way." La Boétie said such a group had "not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement."

Most Americans would probably be outraged at being compared to a bridled horse with their government as the master in the saddle. After all, Americans can choose who their government is, unlike many people throughout the world; it is they who are in the saddle, not the government. Americans have saddled themselves with this predicament because they do not understand liberty and, even less, their role in its demise. Many are what the nineteenth century abolitionist and enemy of the state Lysander Spooner referred to as "dupes."

Spooner said in No Treason that the "dupe" was deluded into believing that he played an important role in affirming his liberty by voting "because he is allowed one voice out of millions in deciding what he may do with his own person and his own property, and because he is permitted to have the same voice in robbing, enslaving, and murdering others, that others have in robbing, enslaving, and murdering himself." The "dupe" was "stupid enough to imagine that he is a u2018free man,' a u2018sovereign'" and that his was "u2018a free government'; u2018a government of equal rights,' u2018the best government on earth,' and such like absurdities."

Voting tyranny into power by choice, what Spooner excoriated in the nineteenth century, was unheard of in la Boétie's time. Even so, la Boétie said that any tyrant could be "automatically defeated" if a people simply refused to "consent to its own enslavement." Voting makes many feel all warm and toasty inside, but it does more to further the ends of tyranny than to perpetuate liberty.

As la Boétie unknowingly but correctly surmised about the future impact of mass voting, it is the "inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection. . . . A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it."

The yoke enslaves not only those who choose it, but those who do not. To many, that is a more comforting alternative than the responsibilities associated with being truly "free": free to pay the full cost of education, raising children, and providing for retirement. Only dupes expect what a truly free person would not: that a chosen master is necessary to protect the liberty of some by stealing from others.

Thomas Jefferson once said that he "would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it." Contrary to "dupe" philosophy, liberty is not something that must be paid for by spilling blood and expending treasure all over the globe. Liberty requires vigilance, yes, but never by government. No government has existed that did not intend to reduce its people to slavery, either by force or by the people's own hand.

The hand of tyranny is patient. It has strangled free people many times throughout history. At times, men have willingly placed the rope in the hands of the tyrant and served him faithfully while he tightened the noose around their necks. Americans are no different. They've just duped themselves into believing they are somehow immune to the forces of history.

Prefacing the natural law philosophy of the eighteenth century, la Boétie said, "if we led our lives according to the ways intended by nature and the lessons taught by her, we should be intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become slaves to nobody." That would require too much personal responsibility. It's much easier to choose a master and let him decide for us.

April 23, 2004