Nov 16, 2017
The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude: A Nearly Forgotten Libertarian Treatise
Presley reviews La Boétie’s classic essay.
Most libertarians have never heard of Etienne de La Boétie, who lived from 1530 to 1563, but he is the author of one of the most libertarian documents ever written—The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. The Discourse was unlike any written political essay before this time. A call for mass civil disobedience and defense of liberty, it not only questioned the legitimacy of authority over others, including elected rulers, it dared to ask why people consent to their own enslavement by the authority. Terror and force are not enough to enforce obedience, La Boétie argued. He called for people to resist oppression not through bloodshed but by withdrawing their consent. “Resolve to serve no more and you are at once freed.” “…[the tyrant] has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you…How would he dare assail you if he had not cooperation from you?”
It is thus readily apparent why libertarians should care about this treatise. And indeed, some are aware of it. In fact I wrote an essay on La Boétie for The Libertarian Encyclopedia published in 2008 by Cato. But that was a half a generation ago and many libertarians haven’t read this volume so it is time to alert new readers to this incredible document.
This treatise was written around 1549 and published and published clandestinely in 1576 under the title of Le Contr’un (“The Anti-One”). Some of La Boétie’s psychological insights in this essay would not be seen again until the publication of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s first article on obedience to authority in 1963. People do not simply obey out of fear, La Boétie wrote, they obey out of habit, short-sighted self-interest, greed, and love of privilege, or through the influence of State tricks, propaganda, and symbols. Milgram, author of the classic book Obedience to Authority, agreed, considering La Boétie’s insight into the psychological foundations of authority to be highly insightful.
La Boétie saw clearly that most people accept what they are taught and what they are used to, rarely questioning the status quo. “Men will grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection,” he wrote,” 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.” How modern this insight sounds. The number of people who question, let alone resist, unjust authority is small, even in America.
Modern libertarian writer Murray Rothbard was enthusiastic about La Boétie. He was, wrote Rothbard in the introduction to the Free Life Editions reprint in 1975, “the first theorist of the strategy of mass, non-violent civil disobedience of State edicts and extractions.” Though the Discourse is not an anarchist document, it was an important intellectual precursor to anarchism and civil disobedience, inspiring Tolstoy, German anarchist Gustav Landauer, and writers in the French Revolution.
Since La Boétie believed people come to love their servitude, much of the tone of the essay is pessimistic. However there was a hint of optimism: “There is in our souls some native seed of reason, which, if nourished by good counsel and training, flowers into virtue, but which, on the other hand, if unable to resist the vices surrounding it, is stifled and blighted.” Though the average person may not be willing, a few clear thinking individuals may save it: “Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it. For them slavery has no satisfactions, no matter how well disguised.” We can hope that modern libertarianism will serve this purpose.
La Boétie had an acute understanding of how governments work. “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.” If only more people today realized that this is exactly how governments, even the more benign ones, work. He also understood that people are, for the most part, creatures of habit and will accept whatever government they live under. People, he thought, “will 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.”
So when I say that no modern libertarian library should be without it, I hope that my readers will not consider this statement hyperbole. It is pure joy to read; I know of nothing quite as ringing in modern literature.
Nannerl O. Keohane. “The Radical Humanism of Étienne de la Boétie,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 38, No. 1, 119-130 (Jan. - Mar., 1977).
Murray Rothbard. Introduction, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by Étienne de La Boétie. New York: Free Life Editions, 1975.
There are several editions of this work available. One is from the Mises Institute and I leave it to your conscience whether you want to buy that edition. Another is from Black Rose Books and I know for certain that this one is a ripoff that violated Free Life Edition’s 1975 copyright. I worked briefly for Free Life Editions when its edition was published and we knew about the violation but could do nothing because it is a Canadian company. I urge you not to buy that edition. Another edition is available from CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. If I were buying another copy, I would choose that one.