The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

By Andy Duncan, Vice-Chairman of Mises UK

I’ve just spent the last ninety minutes reading an amazing short book by Étienne de la Boétie, written in 1553, on the nature of how the state gains mass obedience and on how we can reduce and then eliminate the state by reducing and eventually eliminating that obedience in a completely non-violent manner, in a bid to create Hoppe-World. Yes, it’s a long battle, but one worth fighting for. Now I’ve read it, I think this book may be essential reading for all believers in property, freedom, and liberty.

My favourite quote:

“Let us therefore learn while there is yet time, let us learn to do good. Let us raise our eyes to Heaven for the sake of our honor, for the very love of virtue, or, to speak wisely, for the love and praise of God Almighty, who is the infallible witness of our deeds and the just judge of our faults. As for me, I truly believe I am right, since there is nothing so contrary to a generous and loving God as tyranny—I believe He has reserved, in a separate spot in Hell, some very special punishment for tyrants and their accomplices.” – Étienne de la Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, 1553 A.D

A close runner-up, and my second favourite quote:

“Place on one side fifty thousand armed men, and on the otherthe same number; let them join in battle, one side fighting to retain its liberty, the other to take it away; to which would you, at a guess, promise victory? Which men do you think would march more gallantly to combat—those who anticipate as a reward for their suffering the maintenance of their freedom, or those who cannot expect any other prize for the blows exchanged than the enslavement of others? One side will have before its eyes the blessings of the past and the hope of similar joy in the future; their thoughts will dwell less on the comparatively brief pain of battle than on what they may have to endure forever, they, their children, and all their posterity. The other side has nothing to inspire it with courage except the weak urge of greed, which fades before danger and which can never be so keen, it seems to me, that it will not be dismayed by the least drop of blood from wounds. Consider the justly famous battles of Miltiades, Leonidas, Themistocles, still fresh today in recorded history and in the minds of men as if they had occurred but yesterday, battles fought in Greece for the welfare of the Greeks and as an example to the world. What power do you think gave to such a mere handful of men not the strength but the courage to withstand the attack of a fleet so vast that even the seas were burdened, and to defeat the armies of so many nations, armies so immense that their officers alone outnumbered the entire Greek force? What was it but the fact that in those glorious days this struggle represented not so much a fight of Greeks against Persians as a victory of liberty over domination, of freedom over greed?” – Étienne de la Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, 1553 A.D.

With a long and penetrating foreword by Murray N. Rothbard, the book is freely available to download:

For those who like that sort of thing, there is also an accompanying audio book:


One comment


    In the context of this article , ‘Voluntary servitude’ is merely another term, for ‘government by consent’.

    The principle means by which modern society ‘consents’ to voluntary servitude is ‘democracy’ ‘the rule of law’ and ‘constitutional’ governance, largely because those three things legitimise the state in a way which seeking power solely by force no longer can.

    Not that long ago in historical terms however, people thought that a winning a battle against his rival endowed ‘legitimacy’ to new King.

    They were probably correct. Who, apart from the lawmaker, whether that be God or man, determines what is and is not ‘legitimate’?

    And if it is God the ‘chosen’ man concerned can simply say he has the hot line to him and kill anyone who says he doesn’t.

    This latter unpalatable dilemma is part of the motivation which propelled Protestantism to challenge Roman Catholicism.

    Most people seem content to submit to ‘voluntary servitude’ so long as they feel that they approve of, and/or are part of the process of selecting the (they think), benign slavemaster.

    In this first quote Étienne de la Boétie seems more concerned that the secular tyrant is encroaching on the authority of God than he is upon the freedom of the individual, and in the second he talks about 50,000 men fighting for ‘IT’s’ (i.e their collective) ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’.

    It’s a fight between one collective over another. In neither collective are the participants in any sense ‘free’. They are both, either forcibly, or if they’ve joined the army voluntarily, subject to the orders of the collective and whoever’s leading it.

    Freedom of the individual doesn’t figure on the radar.

    Étienne de la Boétie can be forgiven for not knowing that this kind of fight for ‘liberty’ always ends in some form of coercive regime. His observations predated the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and all the other violent revolutions which have gone the same way.

    When he talks about battles for the ‘welfare’ of the Greeks, Étienne de la Boétie might just as well be a modern socialist talking about ‘investing’ more of other people’s money in the NHS, or Corbyn demanding more regulations or Trade Union power to look after our ‘collective welfare’.

    For social animals like humans and most other large mammals living in a social environment, ‘liberty’ is always a ‘city on a hill’ located just over the horizon. We can strive to get there, but we can never reach it.

    ‘Liberty’ is impossible to attain because securing it depends on there being a coercive regime in place to defend each of our liberties from the encroachment of others, whether they be the collective 50,000 to which Étienne de la Boétie refers, or a bully living nearby.

    All we can do is try to arrive at a collective decision to leave each and every one of us with as much ‘liberty’ as possible commensurate with our material and social welfare.

    How much, or who little however, will remain the stuff of ideological debate forever.

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