90 second book review: The Politics of Obedience

Not much time to post this week.  I’m out of town getting some (actually pretty good) management training.  It’s taking up most of my days and nights, but I did manage to finish one of the books (OK, it’s more like a pamphlet) that was recommended to me at Porcfest: The Politics of Obedience by Etienne de la Boetie.  Although the date on the previous link says the document was published in 2005, that was for that edition with a rather lengthy (but worth it) introduction written by Murray Rothbard.  The original document was first penned almost 500 years ago, which I have to say actually makes me rather sad.
Boetie asks and answers the question: why do people voluntarily submit to have their lives run by a tyrant?  He states that it goes beyond simple cowardice.  It’s not that a people is merely afraid of its rulers.

Shall we call subjection to such a leader cowardice? … If a hundred, if a thousand endure the caprice of a single man, should we not rather say that they lack not the courage but the desire to rise against him, and that such an attitude indicates indifference rather than cowardice? When not a hundred, not a thousand men, but a hundred provinces, a thousand cities, a million men, refuse to assail a single man from whom the kindest treatment received is the infliction of serfdom and slavery, what shall we call that? Is it cowardice? … When a thousand, a million men, a thousand cities, fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth. . . . What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even deserve to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found vile enough . . . ?

It’s also not that they think that they receive a net benefit.  So if its not fear and its not reward, what is it?  If the power of a ruler lies in the mass consent of the people, why do the people continue to give their consent when all they would need to do to remove the ruler from power is simply remove their consent?Boetie points out several factors:
First is simple habit:

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

Rulers also realize they need mass consent, so they of course do everything they can to continue to make sure they get it:

Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny

In addition to the “bread and circus” approach they also appeal to the more ethereal and ideological.  This can range from invoking the great chain of being, the divine right of kings or in more modern times, the rule of law.  Beyond entertainment, rulers also use the public treasury to simply buy consent:

Roman tyrants … provided the city wards with feasts to cajole the rabble…. Tyrants would distribute largesse, 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.

The last trick cataloged by Boetie is the creation of a class of supplicants who believe that is in their best interests to continue to support the ruler, simply because they are relatively more free than those that they are allowed to subjugate.  This group knows there is something wrong, but choose to ignore it since their livelihood is so closely tied to the continued success of the ruler.  Maybe Ike read Boetie?
Overall it’s a great read and I do recommend it.  I did say that it made me sad and you might be wondering why.  Finding out that such a clear argument in favor of individual liberty has existed for more than 500 years and yet we are still in the state we are in just makes me think we still have a long way to go to get just enough people to take personal responsibility and withdraw their consent to be ruled.
I have hope though, which is stirred by the story Boetie relates from the history of the Persian Wars.  Those that have tasted liberty know that there can be no substitute:

It gives me pleasure to recall a conversation of the olden time between one of the favorites of Xerxes, the great king of Persia, and two Lacedaemonians. When Xerxes equipped his great army to conquer Greece, he sent his ambassadors into the Greek cities to ask for water and earth. That was the procedure the Persians adopted in summoning the cities to surrender. Neither to Athens nor to Sparta, however, did he dispatch such messengers, because those who had been sent there by Darius his father had been thrown, by the Athenians and Spartans, some into ditches and others into wells, with the invitation to help themselves freely there to water and soil to take back to their prince. Those Greeks could not permit even the slightest suggestion of encroachment upon their liberty. The Spartans suspected, nevertheless, that they had incurred the wrath of the gods by their action, and especially the wrath of Talthybios, the god of the heralds; in order to appease him they decided to send Xerxes two of their citizens in atonement for the cruel death inflicted upon the ambassadors of his father. Two Spartans, one named Sperte and the other Bulis, volunteered to offer themselves as a sacrifice. So they departed, and on the way they came to the palace of the Persian named Hydarnes, lieutenant of the king in all the Asiatic cities situated on the sea coasts. He received them with great honor, feasted them, and then, speaking of one thing and another, he asked them why they refused so obdurately his king’s friendship. “Consider well, O Spartans,” said he, “and realize by my example that the king knows how to honor those who are worthy, and believe that if you were his men he would do the same for you; if you belonged to him and he had known you, there is not one among you who might not be the lord of some Greek city.”
“By such words, Hydarnes, you give us no good counsel,” replied the Lacedaemonians, “because you have experienced merely the advantage of which you speak; you do not know the privilege we enjoy. You have the honor of the king’s favor; but you know nothing about liberty, what relish it has and how sweet it is. For if you had any knowledge of it, you yourself would advise us to defend it, not with lance and shield, but with our very teeth and nails.







2 responses to “90 second book review: The Politics of Obedience”

  1. Daryl Avatar

    Good review.
    Yeah, it made me sad too, but also hopeful that the fire of Liberty has burned in the hearts of some men since the dawn of time.
    I say “some” men, because as HL Mencken pointed out, Liberty is not appreciated by “the masses of men”.
    I’ve always been puzzled why this is so…

    1. Chris Avatar

      I think the answer to Mencken’s statement is at the end of my post with the quote from Boetie retelling the Spartan story. Most men don’t thirst for liberty because they’ve never tasted it. Once you taste it though, it’s hard to not have it all the time.

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