In The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, the sixteenth-century French poet, judge, and political philosopher Étienne de La Boétie wondered
how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation!
La Boétie was establishing the undeniable but overlooked truth that in any political system the ruled vastly outnumber the rulers. Brute force cannot be the key to maintaining despotism because the subjects always hold the potential to overwhelm the prince. Actually, they need not do anything except stop acquiescing. La Boétie writes:
Obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude. 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.
La Boétie had autocratic rule in mind, but his book at least hints of realization that other forms of government share this curious feature. As I discussed recently, Alexis de Tocqueville thought democracies were prone to despotism, albeit a milder kind, but despotism nevertheless. As he wrote in Democracy in America, people living in democracies “combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.”
Romanticizers of representative government put much weight on the claim that the people rule themselves, but that doesn’t withstand close examination. This is not the place to elaborate, but anyone can ask himself how casting one vote out of hundreds of thousands or millions every two, four, and six years could possibly count as self-rule. Which self are we talking about here?
Well, La Boétie wanted to know how the multitude is held in check by the ruling clique when they had it in their power to refuse. He concluded that habit has a lot to do with it:
It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born…. [I]t is clear enough that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.
He acknowledged that the people’s acquiescence is helped along by the ruler’s distribution of what we today call “benefits” — bread and circuses. The government’s schools are also instrumental in cultivating the subject mentality in children. And let’s not forget the continuing “need” for adult “education” to reinforce the propriety of subordination to political authority. The chief propagandists in this effort, aside from the politicians themselves, are the court intellectuals, writers, and academics who hawk statolatry to the rest of us.
Which brings me to the op-ed and editorial writers at the newspapers. They are well positioned to preach that activist government is all that stands between us and catastrophe. There’s no one better at this than E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post. In recent weeks he praised the IRS as a great American institution, and just the other day he wrote this:
Ever heard the one about the guy who hated government until a deregulated Wall Street crashed, an oil spill devastated the Gulf of Mexico, a coal mine collapsed, and some good police work stopped a terrorist attack? …It’s hard to argue that the difficulties we confront were caused by an excessively powerful “big” government.
In fact, government had a heavy hand in every one of those things. Wall Street crashed after years of profiting from government’s discipline-weakening easy money and bailout guarantees. Oil companies have grown up in an environment of subsidy and limited liability. Coal miners have been lulled into a false sense of security by industry-captured regulators and self-serving bureaucratic unions corrupted by sinecures from the corporate state. And terrorism in Times Square is the kind of “blowback” to be expected after invasions, occupations, and bombings that kill innocents in the Middle East.
Dionne’s ahistorical assertion that government’s “central task” is to “stand up for … the less powerful against the more powerful” might be naivete. But he’s too smart a guy, so it’s more likely just another day at serving up the myths that keep us acquiescing in our own subjugation.