Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Linking 16th Century French Political Philosophy and Modern Monetary Theory

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.  --Etienne de la Boetie, The Politics of Obedience:  The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, 44
Etienne de la Boetie, the famous French political philosopher of the 16th century who is still greatly admired as the founding father of Western libertarian thought, writes that all governments, including tyrannies, fall if the people withdraw their consent.  In fact, this idea was restated by David Hume who said in  his famous Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (volume 1 of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects in Two Volumes, 29) that
nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.  When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.  It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded.  (emphasis mine)
After I read la Boetie's discourse, I attempted to interpret what he really meant by his plan for the masses of common men and women to "withdraw their consent."  From Rothbard's introduction to la Boetie's discourse, the direct lived experience of la Boetie was a religious conflict in France between the Protestants and the Catholics.  Rothbard also used examples of towns in America going on a "tax strike," meaning that all the people in the town refused to pay their local taxes.  By refusing to pay their taxes, the people put pressure on the local government to change the government's policies and budget to something that the people would accept.  Rothbard also mentions a number of later anarchist writers who adopted and extended la Boetie's initial argument.  Finally, Rothbard mentions how la Boetie influenced Gandhi implying that la Boetie's book serves as a blue-print for non-violent civil disobedience movements.

When I initially tried to interpret la Boetie's discourse, I focused on the fraudulent nature of "property rights" under a feudal tyranny.  The people kept sending resources to the tyrant; to withdraw their consent, the people should cut off the resources they allow the tyrant to take from them.  The people consented to this ongoing wealth transfer.  Some of the quotations that led me to focus on a "consent to property theft must be withdrawn by the masses" explanation of what la Boetie really meant shall be explored next.

For example, in Hans-Hermann Hoppe's A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, we see a tendency for the people to want to run away to the towns set up by the merchants.  These towns are attempting to operate outside of the feudal system.  Hoppe writes that
in order to escape this threat the merchants were forced to organize themselves and help establish small fortified trading places at the very fringes of the centers of feudal power. As places of partial exterritoriality and at least partial freedom, they soon attracted growing numbers of the peasantry running away from feudal exploitation and economic misery, and they grew into small towns, fostering the development of crafts and productive enterprises which could not have emerged in the surroundings of exploitation and legal instability characteristic of the feudal order itself.  (85)
The economic exploitation aspect of the feudal system was stressed by la Boetie himself when he writes that
you sow your crops in order that he may ravage them, you install and furnish your homes to give him goods to pillage; you rear your daughters that he may gratify his lust; you bring up your children in order that he may confer upon them the greatest privilege he knows--to be led into his battles, to be delivered to butchery, to be made the servants of his greed and the instruments of his vengeance; you yield your bodies unto hard labor in order that he may indulge in his delights and wallow in his filthy pleasures; you weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and the mightier to hold you in check. (46-47)
My basic assumption was this:  la Boetie's model is similar to the explanation given on the movie Jaws regarding how to get rid of a shark.  In the movie, the oceanographic institute representative says that you can either kill the shark or you can starve it.  If you starve it, if you cut off its food supply, then the shark will leave the area looking for an area that will provide the shark with more food.  Similarly, it seems as if la Boetie wants the people to cut off the tyrant's "food supply."  Stop consenting to his pillaging of your farms!  Stop consenting to the conscription of your children, therefore cutting off his supply of troops, and so on.  Don't consent to the resources transfer from you to the tyrant!  Furthermore, from Hoppe's quote, the people could "exercise" their "withdrawal of consent" by using their feet and physically moving themselves to one of the relatively free towns set up by the merchants.

However, from my recent reading of Murray N. Rothbard's book The Mystery of Banking, I am starting to wonder if maybe my initial interpretation of la Boetie's discourse is incomplete.  Rothbard provides in his book a sketch of the process by which kings and governments gradually manipulate the people to give their consent to an arbitrary fiat money system.  In Rothbard's historical sketch, we begin with a story about how nobody will accept fiat paper money.  In the beginning, people will only accept "real money," i.e., gold or silver coin.  Then we see a gradual process by which people are slowly but surely encouraged to use the metallic coins less and less in their daily transactions.  So maybe early on the government will issue paper money but promise to make it fully redeemable in gold or silver coin.  Then later we start to see numerous attempts to make the paper money irredeemable in either gold or silver.  Propaganda campaigns are launched to demonize the use of gold and silver coin in daily transactions.  Moreover, temporary "war measures" that "suspend redemption temporarily" are part of the "training process," i.e., the process to slowly teach people to use irredeemable paper notes.  All of this has me wondering:  did la Boetie also intend his discourse to be a warning against the use of paper fiat money?  Since Rothbard's historical sketch is all about the "government" trying to get people to give their consent to irredeemable paper money and to get people to withdraw their consent to using gold and silver coin in their daily transactions, then maybe la Boetie also meant to warn the people that they should NOT CONSENT to the tyrant's plan to substitute irredeemable paper money for gold and silver coin.  In other words, maybe la Boetie saw an attempt by tyrants to get rid of silver and gold coin; la Boetie's response was that the people should not consent to this transition from metal to paper money.

It is easy to demonstrate that la Boetie wanted people to withdraw their consent from the tyranny.  Moreover, it is easy to find many examples in la Boetie's book about how the tyrants try to "engineer consent."  The laundry list of tricks used by tyrants in order to "get consent" is rather extensive and includes things such as:  manipulating religion, feasts, bribery, "it is all in the common good," and so on. La Boetie also criticizes the people for not declaring self-ownership, i.e., ownership over their own bodies.  La Boetie writes that
still men accept servility in order to acquire wealth; as if they could acquire anything of their own when they cannot even assert that they belong to themselves, or as if anyone could possess under a tyrant a single thing in his own name. Yet they act as if their wealth really belonged to them, and forget that it is they themselves who give the ruler the power to deprive everybody of everything, leaving nothing that anyone can identify as belonging to somebody. (74-75, emphasis mine)
So it is clear to me that la Boetie was concerned about the exploitation of property by the tyrant. People were giving their consent to a gigantic plundering operation because the tyrant was plundering not only the physical possessions of the masses but also the actual bodies of the masses.  Since money is also private property and since la Boetie was concerned about the fact that the masses were consenting to the robbery of their property (including their bodies), then maybe la Boetie's treatise can be interpreted as a warning against consenting to irredeemable paper money.  Maybe la Boetie is trying to warn people:  you need to stop consenting to the robbing of your body, stop consenting to the robbing of your physical property (e.g., the produce grown on your farm) and STOP CONSENTING TO THE ROBBING OF YOUR MONEY'S PURCHASING POWER THAT INEVITABLY WILL HAPPEN WHEN IRREDEEMABLE PAPER MONEY IS ADOPTED (i.e., the irredeemable paper money will permit unchecked inflation and the destruction of your real cash balances)!  I am still in the speculation stage of my thinking; I just noticed that Rothbard's historical sketch was full of key ideas stressed by la Boetie.  In Rothbard's historical sketch about how governments try to get people to stop consenting to the use of gold and silver coin and about how governments try to get people to consent to the use of irredeemable paper money instead, the governments are continually trying to get people to develop bad habits so that they will consent to their own enslavement.  Rothbard stresses ideas such as the "habituation to tyranny" and "consent to one's own enslavement." Since the exact same ideas (consent, habituation etc.) were also stressed in la Boetie's discourse, I began thinking that maybe la Boetie's treatise has a monetary theory dimension to it.  I began to think to myself, Rothbard's account sounds eerily similar to la Boetie's in terms of vocabulary used and in terms of underlying ideas.  Maybe a link exists between the two?

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