Friday, September 3, 2010

The Milgram Experiment

by Jeff Riggenbach

Mises Daily
September 3, 2010

It was about 1550, according to the standard accounts — about 14 years before the birth of Shakespeare, about 80 years before the birth of John Locke, about 135 years before the birth of Bach — that a young Frenchman named Etienne de La Boetie, a young man of what we, today, would call college age, 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?"

La Boetie saw, 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.

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

Rothbard wrote this passage as part of a lengthy and extremely interesting introduction to a then-new edition of Etienne de La Boetie's youthful essay on political philosophy. This new edition (which presented a modern American translation originally brought out in the 1940s) was published in 1975 under the title The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. That very same year, 1975, a rival edition of La Boetie's little book was issued by another small scholarly publisher, this one presenting an 18th-century British translation with the 16th-century French text on facing pages. This rival edition was published under the title The Will to Bondage and featured a not so lengthy but extremely interesting preface by the libertarian historian and editor James J. Martin.