The world has never known true liberty; those conditions under which individual freedom prevails, described by Friedrich Hayek as “a state in which each can use his knowledge for his purposes”.
Hayek’s definition of freedom may appear simple but it has profound implications. Where, on earth, can individuals use their knowledge for their own purposes without being thwarted in some way, the utilisation of their knowledge interfered with, or the proceeds of their efforts taken by others? Instead of enjoying liberty, throughout the ages, people have suffered under greater or lesser forms of tyranny.
Behind the scenes, in every country, a contest of ideas rages between the promoters of tyranny and the defenders and promoters of liberty. The fate of the uninformed, the majority of whom are totally unaware that such a contest is being waged, hangs on the outcome. Every decision taken in gatherings of politicians or courts of law that affects the lives of every citizen in every country is a subtle shift towards or away from personal individual freedom. Cumulatively, all these shifts determine the extent to which “each can use his knowledge for his purposes” or is prevented from doing so.
In a remarkable essay, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Étienne de la Boétie, a law student at the University of Orléans in the mid-sixteenth century, wrote about the phenomenon of people submitting to tyranny and failing to demand liberty:
"A longing common to both the wise and the foolish, to brave men and to cowards, is this longing for all those things which, when acquired, would make them happy and contented. Yet one element appears to be lacking. I do not know how it happens that nature fails to place within the hearts of men a burning desire for liberty, a blessing so great and so desirable that when it is lost all evils follow thereafter, and even the blessings that remain lose taste and savour because of their corruption by servitude. Liberty is the only joy upon which men do not seem to insist; for surely if they really wanted it they would receive it. Apparently they refuse this wonderful privilege because it is so easily acquired."
The prescience of La Boétie allowed him to describe behaviour that would occur centuries after his death:
"There are three kinds of tyrants; some receive their proud position through elections by the people, others by force of arms, others by inheritance. Those who have acquired power by means of war act in such wise that it is evident they rule over a conquered country. Those who are born to kingship are scarcely any better, because they are nourished on the breast of tyranny, suck in with their milk the instincts of the tyrant, and consider the people under them as their inherited serfs; and according to their individual disposition, miserly or prodigal, they treat their kingdom as their property. He who has received the state from the people, however, ought to be, it seems to me, more bearable and would be so, I think, were it not for the fact that as soon as he sees himself higher than the others, flattered by that quality which we call grandeur, he plans never to relinquish his position. Such a man usually determines to pass on to his children the authority that the people have conferred upon him; and once his heirs have taken this attitude, strange it is how far they surpass other tyrants in all sorts of vices, and especially in cruelty, because they find no other means to impose this new tyranny than by tightening control and removing their subjects so far from any notion of liberty that even if the memory of it is fresh it will soon be eradicated. Yet, to speak accurately, I do perceive that there is some difference among these three types of tyranny, but as for stating a preference, I cannot grant there is any. For although the means of coming into power differ, still the method of ruling is practically the same; those who are elected act as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves."
Why is it that people do not choose liberty above various forms or levels of subjection to the dictates of those in authority, especially when it is authority that they themselves have granted with their votes? To this question La Boétie has a persuasive answer:
"It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement. It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born."
This last quote from the young French student, echoing down to us from four and a half centuries ago, is particularly pertinent to events in South Africa, where the tyranny of violently imposed apartheid was suffered for many decades; where no one knew liberty, neither the supposed privileged nor the obvious victims. As my colleague Temba Nolutshungu wrote in his article entitled Liberty is Indivisible, “It is not possible to have liberty for some and not for others in the same country.”
Having been under the yoke of apartheid for so long, it is not surprising that South Africans “are unaware of any other state or right”. It is not surprising either that elected politicians or government officials appear to believe that they are entitled to rule rather than serve the people who elected them or were responsible for their appointment.
If liberty is to reign in this country, and for South Africa to avoid the kind of tragic events that are occurring in other parts of the African continent, this state of affairs needs to change. Individuals need to learn about and insist on “a state in which each can use his knowledge for his purposes”.
Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.
Note: The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude can be downloaded at http://mises.org/resources/1218 Liberty is Indivisible can be found at http://tiny.cc/em5jr
FMF Feature Article / 17 May 2011