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States are more vulnerable than people think. They can collapse in an instant — when consent is withdrawn. That is the thesis of The Politics of Obedience, one of the greatest and most thrilling political essays in the history of ideas.
Written nearly a half-millennium ago, Étienne de La Boétie's tract will shake the way you think of the state. His thesis and argument amount to the best answer to Machiavelli ever penned as well as one of the seminal essays in defense of liberty.
Boétie's task is to investigate the nature of the state and its strange status as a tiny minority of the population that adheres to different rules from everyone else and claims the authority to rule everyone else, maintaining a monopoly on law. And it's obvious to Boétie that it can be overthrown in an instant if people withdraw their consent.
But why don't people recoil from the leach of the state? This question sends Boétie on a speculative journey to investigate the power of propaganda, fear, and ideology in causing people to acquiesce in their own subjection.
He goes on to make a case as to why people ought to withdraw their consent immediately. He urges all people to rise up and cast off tyranny simply by refusing to concede that the state is in charge.
"Resolve to serve no more," he says, "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."
In all these areas, the author has anticipated Jefferson, Arendt, Gandhi, Spooner, and those who overthrew Soviet tyranny. This essay has profound relevance for understanding history as well as the present day.