Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Mystique of Government

The feature article in Issue 26 of The Voluntaryist, written by Murray Rothbard, is an excerpt from an introduction to a reprinting of Etienne Boetie’s The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. (PDF link to the book on

The Politics of Obedience is considered to be one of the first books to note that coercive power cannot really be sustained without the consent of the people so all people need to do is withdraw that consent.

As Rothbard explains:

“La Boetie’s celebrated and creatively original call for civil disobedience, for mass non-violent resistance as a method for the overthrow of tyranny, stems directly from the above two premises: the fact that all rule rests on the consent of the subject masses, and the great value of natural liberty. For if tyranny really rests on mass consent, then the obvious means for its overthrow is simply by mass withdrawal of that consent. The weight of tyranny would quickly and suddenly collapse under such a non-violent revolution.”

This sounds like it should be so simple and easy and yet, it’s obviously not. After all, La Boetie wrote his thoughts in the 1500s and look where we are today. So why is it so hard?

One reason, Boetie points out, is that there are always a considerable number of people who benefit, directly or indirectly, no matter how tyrannical the rule.

But I think a second reason may be more important. People are not just dropped into society as full-fledged adults, we grow up inside them; we are trained throughout childhood to accept the situation. Our ability and desire to question authority is gradually and successfully shut down.

This is why I don’t think the problem can be defined so much as consent, but rather indoctrination. We have all sorts of ideas presented to us as absolute truths and there is rarely any opportunity to question authority or critically analyze these truth statements.

Rothbard thinks Boetie’s book helps modern libertarians to see that educating people should not just be focused on government “errors’ or inefficiencies, but we should also be pointing out who is benefiting from the state. In particular, pointing out those who benefit by pushing government propaganda.

I would agree with Rothbard on education but maybe it would be more clear if we said re-education. There is arguably more to unlearn than there is to learn.

The other strategy we get from Boetie is withdrawing consent by mass non-violent civil disobedience. I don’t understand how that happens though. A certain percentage of people have to be equally disillusioned at the exact same time, and also willing to act in a non-violent manner. That’s a lot to line up at a specific moment in time. Rothbard gives an example of a city in Connecticut where residents rejected the city budget 3 times, ending in a tax cut. But is this really withdrawing consent?

He’s also optimistic that in the post Watergate world, (his piece was written in 1975) more people are rebelling against the “whole, carefully nurtured mystique of government.”

I don’t know what he thought was happening at the time but right now we’ve been experiencing a good bit of mass discontent, and the only thing that has happened, on a mass level anyway, is the tea party movement, not a group I’d consider to be against the mystique of government, just against the current version of government.

So far, mass discontent seems to always focus on varying specifics of government, not on government itself. I don’t see this changing as long as we continue to pass along ideas and traditions to the young while stifling difficult questions.

When society stops indoctrinating the young to believe in the mystique of government, maybe one day a mass withdrawal of consent will actually occur.


MamaLiberty said...

I've helped kick this whole idea around for a lot of years, even before 1975. It's a chicken and egg question if ever there was one.

One of our group suggested that the big shifts in previous eras came from the ability of the disaffected to move to a frontier and more or less "start over." That's what happened to allow the new ideas of the Declaration of Independence to produce change, and that didn't happen over night either, of course.

We essentially have NO new frontier for the disaffected to colonize, so any change is monumentally more difficult. If and when space becomes a viable option, that may change. A lot of people I know are working hard to make that happen.

I don't expect to live long enough to enjoy that frontier, but I'm doing my best in the meantime to encourage others - younger folks - to get ready for it.

If you look at the long history of the world (the best we can know it, of course), it seems obvious that real change and real progress has been made in many areas. It takes a very long time, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears, to effect any change. But I will never give up hope.

Space... the final and almost limitless frontier!

Debbie H. said...

Mama, I know what you mean about new frontiers. I do wonder if the seasteading idea might accomplish something.

But right now, I'm interested in Stefan Molyneux's idea that several generations of peaceful parenting is what's needed to really get change.