Politics of Obedience

I was reading stuff about collective memories and conflicts the other day, when suddenly the issue of civil obedience came to my mind. After some research I got convinced I am not the first person interested in it.

It was about 1550 that a young Frenchman named Etienne de La Boetie, about 20 years old, posed what Murray Rothbard would later describe as “the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience. Why do people, in all times and places, obey the commands of the government, which always constitutes a small minority of the society?”. (read full research here) Rothbard wrote, that

every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general popular acceptance. In short, the bulk of the people themselves, for whatever reason, acquiesce in their own subjection. If this were not the case, no tyranny, indeed no governmental rule, could long endure. Hence, a government does not have to be popularly elected to enjoy general public support; for general public support is in the very nature of all governments that endure, including the most oppressive of tyrannies. The tyrant is but one person, and could scarcely command the obedience of another person, much less of an entire country, if most of the subjects did not grant their obedience by their own consent. (footnote)

This, then, becomes for La Boétie the central problem of political theory: why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement?

In the ferment of his law school days at Orléans, Étienne de La Boétie composed his brief but profound and deeply radical Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Discours de la Servitude Volontaire). The Discourse was circulated in manuscript form and never published by La Boétie. One can speculate that its radical views were an important reason for the author’s withholding it from publication. It achieved considerable fame in local Périgordian intellectual circles,  however. (footnote) exerpt from Discourse of Voluntary Servitude:

The fundamental political question is why do people obey a government. The answer is that they tend to enslave themselves, to let themselves be governed by tyrants. Freedom from servitude comes not from violent action, but from the refusal to serve. Tyrants fall when the people withdraw their support.

La Boétie in the second chaoter says, DOCTORS ARE NO DOUBT correct in warning us not to touch incurable wounds, “and I am presumably taking chances in preaching as I do to a people which has long lost all sensitivity and, no longer conscious of its infirmity, is plainly suffering from mortal illness. Let us therefore understand by logic, if we can, how it happens that this obstinate willingness to submit has become so deeply rooted in a nation that the very love of liberty now seems no longer natural.”


As Rothbard points out, Several historians of anarchism have gone so far as to classify La Boétie’s treatise itself as anarchist, which is incorrect since La Boétie never extended his analysis from tyrannical government to government per se.21 But while La Boétie cannot be considered an anarchist, his sweeping strictures on tyranny and the universality of his political philosophy lend themselves easily to such an expansion.

La Boétie gave a road for further researches in obedience studies. Stanley Milgram the social psychologist at the City University of New York wrote a book Obedience to Authority in 1974. The book was Milgram’s summary of and reflections upon a series of experiments he had begun conducting back in 1961, when he was an assistant professor of psychology at Yale.




Milgram wanted to test obedience to authority. He set up an experiment with “teachers” who were the actual participants, and a “learner,” who was an actor. Both were separated into different rooms. The teacher, who wasn’t in on it, asked questions followed by four possible answers. If the learner was incorrect with his answer, the teacher was to administer a shock with voltage that increased with every wrong answer. In reality, no one was being shocked. A tape recorder with pre-recorded screams was hooked up to play each time the teacher administered a zap. When the shocks got to a higher voltage, the actor would bang on the wall and ask the teacher to stop. He’d beg! Eventually all screams and banging would stop and silence would ensue. Nice touch, guys. This was the point when many of the teachers exhibited extreme distress and would ask to stop the experiment. Many were encouraged to go on and told they would not be responsible for any results. If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was told by the experimenter: “Please continue.” “The experiment requires that you continue.” “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” and “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If after all four orders the teacher still wished to stop the experiment, it was ended. Only 14 out of 40 teachers halted the experiment before administering a 450 volt shock(!).




The experiment was repeated as part of the BBC documentary How Violent Are You? first shown in May 2009 as part of the long running Horizon series. Of the 12 participants, only 3 refused to continue to the end of the experiment.Watch the final part of documentary here (for other parts check youtube channel):



In this concluding part of this BBC experiment the author says:

In a certain circumstances we can convince ourselves that violence is justified”.

Here is the answer to your question monsieur La Boetie!




2 thoughts on “Politics of Obedience

  1. ვაიმეე, როგორ მეზარება ეხლა ამის ბოლომდე წაკითხვა, მაგრამ იმდენ ადგილას გადავაწყდი უნდა მოვიცალო :დ

  2. Pingback: Unethical Experiments in a Name of Science « Ad Astra Per Aspera

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