Freedom Begins Within
From the Ludwig von Mises Institute:
Stop Worrying about the Election
by Isaac M. Morehouse
Posted on 10/3/2008
As the presidential election nears, I hear more people voicing their fear over the prospect of the other candidate winning. People from both major parties express genuine trepidation at the thought of a world without their candidate as commander in chief. Both sides believe we will lose our freedom if the wrong party wins.
Perhaps surprisingly, I think there's a lesson to be learned in all this from Hollywood.
The 1994 movie Shawshank Redemption is the fictional story of Andy Dufresne, a prisoner at the infamous Shawshank Penitentiary. One of Dufresne's fellow inmates, Brooks Hatlen, has spent nearly his entire life in Shawshank, and has settled in to the routine and become the prison's bookkeeper. After a lifetime in prison, Hatlen is finally freed as an old man. Once on the outside, Hatlen finds life beyond bars too complicated and confusing, too new, too risky. He cannot cope with this newfound freedom after a life of bondage and, tragically, he commits suicide.
Brooks Hatlen forgot how to be free. He became accustomed to bondage and let the yearning for freedom die within him over his long stay in the penitentiary.
Andy Dufresne, on the other hand, never let his freedom die. While locked in Shawshank, despite oppressive and often gruesome circumstances, Dufresne's spirit was unshakable. He constantly cultivated the seeds of freedom in the least free setting imaginable. When Dufresne escaped, unlike Hatlen, he embraced life in the free air and pursued his dreams.
The difference between these two men had nothing to do with their physical circumstances; both were in prison. Yet Andy Dufresne, even while imprisoned, was still free. No bars or guards or hardships could take away his freedom. Hatlen had lost his freedom, and even in the absence of physical oppression, he was still a prisoner. An individual who wants to be free can be, no matter what the world brings. An individual who has let the spirit of freedom die will never be free, no matter what the world brings.
The idea that freedom is simply a state of mind may sound trifling, especially when considering some of the unimaginable horrors faced by unfree peoples across the globe. But even political freedom cannot be had without a people who keep the spirit of freedom alive within themselves; and if they do, political freedom is often not far behind.
Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, tells an inspiring story of an underground band of freedom fighters in formerly communist Poland. Their spirit of freedom was kept alive despite a tyrannical Communist regime. Indeed, they not only held onto their belief in freedom, but they spread it, often at great risk to their lives.
When the Communist authorities finally announced that they were relinquishing their power, the reason they gave was that the Polish people had become "ungovernable."
No regulations, no prisons, no secret police, no propaganda, no physical or political suppression could take away the people's freedom.
They were free, whether the government liked it or not.
Keep this in mind as America's government changes with each election. Remember this when you see government expanding its reach into your life. Rather than looking to political leaders to protect or expand our freedom we should cultivate the seeds of freedom in our own spirits, and inspire others to do the same.
Nothing government can do can take away our freedom; and if we are a people who are truly free, the government will have to follow.
This, then, becomes for La Boétie the central problem of political theory: why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement?
La Boétie cuts to the heart of what is, or rather should be, 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?
To La Boétie the spectacle of general consent to despotism is puzzling and appalling:
I should like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they...
And this mass submission must be out of consent rather than simply out of fear:
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 is evident from the above passages that La Boétie is bitterly opposed to tyranny and to the public’s consent to its own subjection. He makes clear also that this opposition is grounded on a theory of natural law and a natural right to liberty. In childhood, presumably because the rational faculties are not yet developed, we obey our parents; but when grown, we should follow our own reason, as free individuals. As La Boétie puts it: “If we led our lives according to the ways intended by nature and the lessons taught by her, we should be intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become slaves to nobody.”
Reason is our guide to the facts and laws of nature and to humanity’s proper path, and each of us has “in our souls some native seed of reason, which, if nourished by good counsel and training, flowers into virtue, but which, on the other hand, if unable to resist the vices surrounding it, is stifled and blighted.” And reason, La Boétie adds, teaches us the justice of equal liberty for all. For reason shows us that nature has, among other things, granted us the common gift of voice and speech. Therefore, “there can be no further doubt that we are all naturally free,” and hence it cannot be asserted that “nature has placed some of us in slavery.” Even animals, he points out, display a natural instinct to be free. But then, what in the world “has so, denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?”
La Boétie’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. (The Tory David Hume did not, unsurprisingly, draw similar conclusions from his theory of mass consent as the basis of all governmental rule.)
Thus, after concluding that all tyranny rests on popular consent, La Boétie eloquently concludes that “obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement.”
Tyrants need not be expropriated by force; they need only be deprived of the public’s continuing supply of funds and resources. The more one yields to tyrants, La Boétie points out, the stronger and mightier they become. But if the tyrants “are simply not obeyed,” they become “undone and as nothing.” La Boétie then exhorts the “poor, wretched, and stupid peoples” to cast off their chains by refusing to supply the tyrant any further with the instruments of their own oppression.
The tyrant, indeed, has nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had not cooperation from you?
La Boétie concludes his exhortation by assuring the masses that to overthrow the tyrant they need not act, nor shed their blood. They can do so “merely by willing to be free.” In short,
Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.
It was a medieval tradition to justify tyrannicide of unjust rulers who break the divine law, but La Boétie’s doctrine, though non-violent, was in the deepest sense far more radical. For while the assassination of a tyrant is simply an isolated individual act within an existing political system, mass civil disobedience, being a direct act on the part of large masses of people, is far more revolutionary in launching a transformation of the system itself. It is also more elegant and profound in theoretical terms, flowing immediately as it does from La Boétie’s insight about power necessarily resting on popular consent; for then the remedy to power is simply to withdraw that consent...
The English post William Ernest Henley captured that same spirit in 1875:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.