Notes and Fragments: Boétie was wrong
In this “Notes and Fragments” series I will briefly discuss some ideas that I might write about in more detail in the future. See Part I.
Libertarians often cite Étienne de la Boétie to argue that government power depends on the consent or acquiescence of the governed. If government is outnumbered and outgunned by the mass of the population, then its power must depend on the voluntary support of the public. Hence governments can be toppled if enough people withdraw their support.
It seems to me that Boétie underestimated the severity of the collective action problems facing revolution: I benefit from the revolution whether I participate or not, and since participation is costly, I’m going to stay home. Suppose a majority of people do withdraw their support, and refuse to cooperate with the government. But the government has a military; if brutal enough, it could simply make an example out of a few resisters, thereby raising the costs of resistance and convincing everyone else to give up. So even though the government is outnumbered, what matters is not numbers but military strength, and the government military can defeat any uncoordinated mass uprising.
Hence I think it’s false that government power depends purely on ideology. (See also Jiborn’s “The Power of Coordination“ and Caplan’s “Mises’ Democracy-Dictatorship Equivalence Theorem: A Critique.”)