The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

You're already old! Wait a minute, for what??

Etienne de La Boetie was between 16 and 18 when he clandestinely wrote this pamphlet. Published posthumously in 1577, “The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude” turned out to be one of the essential references of libertarianism. Just consider that the “father” of the libertarian movement, Murray N. Rothbard, wrote the preface to it.

What makes it a libertarian text?

  • Human beings are born free, and any situation of coercive rule is against human nature:
    Man is not made to be subjected and to obey a minority of rulers (call them politicians, if you want). The fact that you vote is distinct from the voluntary acceptance of obedience, as you have never had the chance to vote for "none of the alternatives."
  • Non-violence:
    It is not necessary at all to use violence if you want to change the status quo. You simply need to withdraw your consent and educate that state legitimacy is nothing but state propaganda.
While the medieval tradition justified tyrannicide against rulers who violated divine law, La Boétie's non-violent doctrine is even more radical. Unlike the isolated act of assassinating a tyrant, mass civil disobedience involves large groups of people directly, launching a revolutionary transformation of the system.

Similarities aside, let's move to the core of the Discourse.

The Paradox

Etienne sets in front of his readers a politico-philosophical paradox:

“Why do people, in all times and places, obey the commands of the government, which always constitutes a small minority of the society?”

Given that man is born to be free by nature, civil obedience is not only unnatural but also a mystery.

And the paradox goes even further:

All animals are born to be free, he observes. It's easy to see that every creature resists coming under the dominion of humans. For instance, cows and oxen resist when they are placed under the yoke of humans and are made to serve, as in agriculture.

However, for men it seems as

“Liberty is the only joy upon which men do not seem to insist. Apparently they refuse this wonderful privilege because it is so easily acquired.”

He asks: What evil chance has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lack the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?

And finds 4 reasons why men usually accept to be ruled.

Why do you obey rulers and apparently 'voluntarily'?

  1. By force: You live in a place that has been conquered by foreigners
  2. Habits: Men will adapt to the belief that they've always been subordinate, as their fathers were, leading them to accept and imitate this suffering.
  3. Ideology: Masses are deceived into perceiving the tyrannical ruler as wise, fair, and kind-hearted.
  4. Benefits: Tyrants secure approval by offering handouts, like wheat, wine, and coins. (Yet individuals often overlook that these gifts had essentially been stolen from themselves).

A way out?

Of course! Etienne envisions 2 ways out of this paradoxical situation, and neither of them relies on violence.

  • Withdrawal of consent: If tyranny truly relies on mass consent, then the straightforward method for its overthrow is through the mass withdrawal of that consent. The tyrant, in fact, possesses nothing more than the power that you grant to him, which enables him to bring about your destruction. "How would they dare to assail you if they did not have cooperation from you?"
  • Educate: Awaken the public to this process, to demystify and desanctify the state apparatus! There will always be a group of people, better endowed than others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot refrain from attempting to shake it off. These are the individuals who never become tamed under subjection.

In one sentence,

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.

My Take Today

It’s just too easy for me to agree with de La Boétie here, so I’ll play the devil’s advocate, just to have some fun; otherwise, it’s always about the same arguments and the same answers. And please, comment down below here!

  • Is this a matter of paradoxical civil obedience, OR is it simply individuals who legitimize rulers (such as the government)? What if people still cared about their freedom, THEREFORE they legitimize (more or less voluntarily) a political authority to possess the monopoly of power and to act coercively to a certain extent?
    Viewed from this perspective, de La Boétie’s reasoning – that people are merely deceived by rulers, leading them to become accustomed to being ruled and to obey – appears somewhat akin to a conspiracy theory.
  • As for the distinction with animals: What if human beings are simply smarter than other animals and have realized that in order to secure the rule of law, property, and other individual rights, they need a political authority and some level of coercion, and they are okay with it? Far from having forgotten what freedom is, it's just that they are truly aware of what it is and play it "safe." Is civil obedience a paradox and a mystery, or is it simply a matter of rationality?
  • Lastly, and somewhat sadly: Do individuals genuinely want to be free? If faced with two alternatives — one being to relinquish a portion of their freedom and "receive" (albeit through the coercion of other individuals) certain benefits like public employment, a stipend, social security, etc., while the other option is complete freedom and responsibility — would they still opt for that complete freedom? Well... I hope so...