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; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.

—David Hume

But what gives rise to such popular opinion? Surely, it must be that there is some real or perceived benefit.

One must realize the extent to which the foundation of tyranny lies in the vast networks of corrupted people with an interest in maintaining tyranny.

—Étienne de la Boétie

Whether a despotism, an oligarchy, a democracy, or a republic (being a hybrid of the first three), it is the nature of the state itself that nurtures such thinking. The state, in order to maintain its standing and perceived legitimacy must keep certain majorities and powerful minorities from becoming dissatisfied. It must allow them to plunder their fellow man. Better still, it might do the plundering for them and take some off the top. When a preponderance of the people are either employed or subsidized or threatened or ignorant of the ways in which they are wronged by the state, their opinions will support it. Whether out of love or fear or indifference, their consent is given.

Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget that the state lives at the expense of everyone.

—Claude Frédéric Bastiat

This is the system of universal plunder found in one form or another in every state that has ever been. States, even the most oppressive, so long as they last, rest on the consent of the governed. Provided a given state has not reached its tipping point of consent-withdrawal (at which point that state would fail), there still exist enough people, perhaps even some without a direct say in how they are governed, who benefit from the plunder. Many of those observant enough to notice its damaging effects on their own livelihood will still participate, because to not play the game is to lose it.

The dearest ambition of a slave is not liberty, but to have a slave of his own.

—Sir Richard Francis Burton

This notion may be hard for some to accept (mostly due to the belief that the oppressed are necessarily morally superior to the oppressor), but it is true nonetheless. In the context of the modern state, in fact, few truths should be more obvious. For very often when a special interest seeks to influence lawmakers or the law, it is not just to free themselves from some real or perceived tyranny or dishonor or want, or even to free themselves at all, but, whether they are fully conscious of it or not, to take away someone else’s liberty or dignity or abundance.

But when universal plunder is the name of the game, it seems to many to be the only rational option, at least as regards their relationship to the state. It’s a system that feeds upon itself. To break the cycle, it would take (at the very least) a significant minority of individuals refusing to participate in the plunder, choosing to forego the potential benefits they might be able to obtain by continuing to go along. These people, naturally, would (and do) seem irrational to those who are at that time still engaged in plunder that is the political/legal system.

All of this is especially true when the statism (slavery) is made more palatable to the masses with egalitarianism and democracy. For there is equality of opportunity (if not always of outcome) in the plunder. The purpose of this is simply to confer legitimacy (through the consent of the governed) upon the acts of enslaving and plundering one’s fellow man.

Consider the following sequence of cases, which we shall call the Tale of the Slave, and imagine it is about you.

1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.

2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.

3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.

4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.

5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.

6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.

Let us pause in this sequence of cases to take stock. If the master contracts this transfer of power so that he cannot withdraw it, you have a change of master. You now have 10,000 masters instead of just one; rather you have one 10,000-headed master. Perhaps the 10,000 even will be kindlier than the benevolent master in case 2. Still, they are your master. However, still more can be done. A kindly single master (as in case 2) might allow his slave(s) to speak up and try to persuade him to make a certain decision. The 10,000-headed monster can do this also.

7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.

8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)

9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?

—Robert Nozick

[image credits: my own work]

[Originally published at The Libertarian Liquidationist]