Why We Consent to Oppression

Self-suppression paves the way for political suppression.


"Why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement?" asks Murray Rothbard in his introduction to a new edition of Etienne La Boetie's The Politics of Obedience. Rothbard is not posing a new question but is summing up La Boetie's dismay over the individual's willingness to submit to tyranny. La Boetie's classic was written more than four centuries ago, but the question it raises has seldom been answered to anyone's satisfaction.

By focusing upon the cowardly failure of the individual, La Boetie shifts his political inquiry into the realm of psychology. But it is far easier for a modern audience to focus upon the political forces of oppression than upon the willing cooperation of the victims. I myself began many years ago by emphasizing the vulnerability of the oppressed when I pointed out to the psychiatric profession that even so-called voluntary mental patients are victims of coercion.

But what of the other side of the coin? Mightn't it be that most mental patients, however much they are painted as helpless victims, have chosen their way into unfreedom? Could it be that, in the United States, at least, most victims of oppression have joined their oppressors in a cooperative game of subjugation?

But before taking up the psychological aspects of self-oppression or self-enslavement, I must first take on a more primary question: the place of psychology as a discipline in relation to economics and politics.


Students of economics and politics often look with caution, suspicion, and even contempt upon psychology. Libertarian psychiatrists or psychologists are cited within libertarian thinkers' studies of human action, but their contributions to an understanding of human action do not even get an honorable mention. Libertarians are very aware of Thomas Szasz's work in debunking the concept of mental illness and in unmasking involuntary treatment as a crime against humanity. But they are not likely to know that Szasz has outlined a theory of human action based upon free will and choice and that as early as The Myth of Mental Illness (1962) he began exploring the role of choice in becoming an oppressed person. In For a New Liberty, for example, Rothbard gives Szasz deserved credit as a freedom fighter against psychiatric oppression but fails to acknowledge Szasz's contribution to a theory of human conduct.

It is understandable that disciplined economists or political theorists might look with fear and loathing upon psychology and psychiatry in general. Psychological approaches to public issues have typically proven to be naive, stupid, and even malicious. Psychological concepts have been used to assassinate the character of famous men and to justify psychiatric atrocities such as involuntary treatment. But this is not a characteristic of psychology alone; most establishment disciplines have been used to undermine liberty.

One particularly abusive use of psychologizing has been the unscrupulous blaming of the victim rather than the oppressor. Everything from slavery to oppression of women has been justified on the grounds that slaves and women are psychologically immature or otherwise mentally inferior. But it is a different matter to speak of self-oppression, to hold the oppressed individual responsible for submitting without a fight.

Some thinkers are afraid that a psychology of freedom is a contradiction in terms, because any psychology must end up prescribing rules of conduct. Anyone who takes it on himself to develop such a psychology is immediately thought to run the risk of becoming an authoritarian in his own right. But this, too, is not a danger specific to psychology. Authoritarianism can and does rear up as easily within allegedly libertarian schools of philosophy and economics.


But why speak of a "libertarian psychology"? Why not simply "psychology"? Economists differ on this issue within their own discipline, some advocating that "libertarian economics" is a redundancy and that the science of economics is in reality the science of the free market. They reserve the word "politics" for the study of the coerced market. Other economists stay closer to the traditional meaning of economics and distinguish between libertarian and totalitarian economics. I prefer this less parochial use of language, whereby "libertarian psychology" is used in order to distinguish it from all other psychological schools.

But when I speak of libertarian psychology, I no more intend thus to monopolize the field than does an honest libertarian economist. Again, this is not a problem peculiar to psychology. As long as people think for themselves, they will find much to disagree about. Even if I harbored hidden monopolistic tendencies, I am not a State psychiatrist and I do not resort to involuntary treatment or to authoritarian techniques—no opportunity there for me to monopolize anyone else's mind or body with my theories.

It will also be asked, "Who will determine if your psychology is truly libertarian?" I must return with the question, "Who determines if an economic theory is libertarian?" Obviously, we can only do our best to reach a consensus among ourselves. I personally believe that a libertarian psychology should adhere closely to the traditional dictionary definition of libertarianism as a philosophy based on the position that human beings have free will and ought to enjoy personal freedom.

Two final concerns about constructing a libertarian psychology stand in interesting and contradictory relationship to each other, and yet they are often espoused by the same person. The one position is that psychology should be a value-free science; the other, that psychology is a myth constructed of mysticism, religion, and hocus-pocus. In reality, psychology, like economics, is neither value-free nor mystical.

Psychology, like economics, is the study of human action. Psychology deals with personal decisionmaking and personal ethics and therefore is always concerned with values, whether they are implicit or explicit. Psychology, like economics, must start from certain premises about human nature and human society, and it must reach conclusions about how human beings ought to live. As argued by Thomas Szasz and myself, psychology deals with what rules people choose to live by, as well as with the consequences of their choices of rules. Thus, I have described psychotherapy as applied ethics, and Szasz has called his own classic on psychotherapy The Ethics of Psychoanalysis.


The two most influential books in my own intellectual development have been Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness and Rothbard's For a New Liberty. A decade spanned my reading of these two books, and it was a decade of intellectual confusion for me. Without knowing it, I had become a libertarian psychiatrist before ever using the word "libertarian." I thought of myself as an antitotalitarian—a rebellious but not wholly constructive identity. This is why one libertarian honestly described my second novel, After the Good War, as a puzzling book. The more I stepped beyond psychology and psychiatry, the more puzzled I became. With the first reading of For a New Liberty, I found a political and economic viewpoint consistent with everything I had already learned as a psychiatrist.

It is possible, however, to state the importance of integrating psychology and politics without reference to my own personal experience. Psychology focuses upon personal conduct—thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions of individual persons, usually within their more intimate settings, such as family, friends, and work. Political and economic studies focus upon the larger canvas of public life where the actions of individuals become historical trends. Psychology done properly is a systematic look at history. As a psychotherapist, I study living autobiographies presented to me by individuals who want to understand the often self-defeating principles by which they have conducted their lives. The aim is to help them to pursue their self-interest more effectively through conscious, rational decisionmaking. The economist or political analyst carries out the same pursuit on a broader scale.

There is a practical reason for the integration of psychology and political analysis. Even if we could with a magic wand transform our society into a libertarian one, it would soon be eroded without support from enlightened individuals. A libertarian society obviously cannot rest upon force; it must rest upon the desire of a sufficient number of individuals to live within a voluntary system. America's meandering toward increasing totalitarianism can be explained in terms of the inherent tendency of any government to aggrandize power; but it can also be understood in terms of the individual citizen's willingness to surrender the ethics of autonomy and individualism for the ethics of helplessness and dependency.

In my psychotherapy practice I observe this tendency of people on a daily basis. Even clients with an avowed libertarian philosophy often find themselves drawn to denying their rights and the rights of others in their personal and family lives.

Why do people betray their own independence and freedom? Why do any of us have difficulty with a "live and let live" philosophy of life which upholds each individual's freedom? Answering these questions must be one of the major goals of a libertarian psychology.


In a talk before the 1976 Libertarian Convention, Murray Rothbard noted that most economists live in the dark about the "ultimate cause" of their own subject matter. That cause, Rothbard declared, is "human action." "People exist and they act," he stated, and this becomes the basis of the "methodological individualism" of libertarian economics. All this pertains equally well to libertarian psychology. Human action is human action—whether the human being is acting in the private or public arena.

In For a New Liberty, Rothbard summarizes the natural rights position of libertarianism in a manner wholly applicable to psychology as well as to economics:

Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man's survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon this knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man's nature for his life and prosperity.

To this one may add the marvelous emphasis placed upon reason both in Nathaniel Branden's application of Objectivist principles to psychology and in the work of Szasz. Because reason is man's most effective technique in achieving his own ends and because reason is necessary for evaluating reality, it must play a key role in any libertarian psychology or psychotherapy.

Even without any derivation from natural rights, dictionary definitions of libertarianism are surprisingly consistent and accurate and provide another starting point for building a libertarian lifestyle or philosophy. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a libertarian as: (1) One who believes in freedom of action and thought; (2) One who believes in free will. With the principles so clearly stated, it is remarkable that the world had to await psychiatrist Thomas Szasz for a direct application of libertarian principles to psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy.


Much of the overall libertarian viewpoint as applied to economics or psychology can be summed up in what Rothbard calls "the basic axiom of the 'right to self-ownership.'" Rothbard's reference to self-ownership implies the existence of a self. So do the words "self-interest," "self-esteem," and "self-love," as well as the word "self-determination," which I have chosen as the organizing principle of my own approach to libertarian psychology.

The self refers to the individual as an actor, moral agent, or source of human action. It identifies Rothbard's "ultimate cause." One might use the term "person" or "human being" instead, but "self" can be made more specific to indicate those particular human qualities associated with ethical conduct in contrast to mechanistic, behavioral reactivity. The self identifies that aspect of the person that libertarians refer to as "human nature" and "human potential." Whether the self is inborn or develops early in life, whether it is temporal or eternal, whether it is biological or spiritual, whether it has many attributes or few—these questions need not concern us here. We need only to know that it is the source of human action and that it manifests four basic, integrated attributes: (1) free will, or the capacity to make choices; (2) reason, or the ability to make logical, rational choices; (3) aspiration for personal freedom; and (4) aspiration to pursue self-interest.

Free will is the inner, personal, or subjective experience of liberty. It can be felt privately by the individual and it can be inferred from his public actions or conduct. Reason is closely related to free will. It can be described as systematic choice making. "Personal sovereignty" is the term I use to designate the capacity and the right to govern one's inner world. It can be viewed as an absolute; we have the right to be absolute monarchs over our own inner experience.

Personal freedom is the expression of free will in the external world. Ethically, it is limited by recognition of the right of others to exercise their freedom, or by the injunction not to use force or fraud against others. Realistically, personal freedom is limited by everything from the price of gasoline to our physical health. Nonetheless, the self aspires toward personal freedom.

The pursuit of self-interest is the human equivalent of the life-enhancing principle that exists in all life forms, from the lowest to the highest. Life itself may be defined as that process which seeks its own survival and growth. Choice making in a rational manner is the human being's most effective method of ensuring its own prosperity.


The distinction between self and person becomes useful when we consider how little the typical person seems to live according to the principles I have attributed to the self. To one degree or another, human beings too often seem to deny their own ability to choose or to reason, and they act in ways contrary to the enlargement of their personal freedom or the promotion of their self-interest.

These individuals present themselves as if they lack selfhood. In Szasz's words, these choose the role of helplessness; in Branden's terms, they have "disowned" themselves. I prefer the term "self-oppression," which is descriptive of the individual's deciding to become his own oppressor. In the extreme, he does this by denying his own selfhood or moral agency.

Every child is brought into the world as a helpless creature. He is literally a captive or a prisoner. Parenthood is the act of creating a captive for oneself. This captive quickly begins to display all the qualities of any self—free will, reason in the form of systematic choice making, and a powerful demand for personal freedom and the pursuit of self-interest. Initially it has little sense of other people or of cooperation. It cries! And that cry makes a loud demand for the fulfillment of its requirements. Usually within a matter of days, maybe within hours of birth, its communication of selfhood conflicts with the needs, demands, or problems of its captor parents.

Given such a conflict—and it usually worsens with the passage of years—the child experiences increasing fear. Fear of painful punishments, fear of neglect of its needs for food and comfort, fear of rejection, fear of ridicule and shame. In too many families its very selfhood is attacked; every time rational self-interest rears its head, the parents go headhunting with every weapon at their disposal. Even if they find that this war against the child clashes with their love for it, they wage the war, believing the child must be suppressed in its own interest in order to enable it to survive within the institutions of the family, the school, religion, and government.

The chronic, painful struggle between the child and its oppressors is so fearful and demoralizing that the child inevitably and invariably turns upon itself to deny some of its attributes in the interest of making peace and surviving within the family, and later within educational, religious, and political institutions. This turning of oppression on oneself is self-oppression.


Even though all children become self-oppressors to one degree or another, self-oppression is still a choice. Its quality and its intensity will be influenced, not only by the totalitarianism of the environment, but by the courage and the convictions of the individual child. Most childhood environments are sufficiently difficult to live within that the typical child finds many good reasons to suppress itself as a last-resort attempt to survive and to get along.

If this were all there is to it, the individual would not become a chronic self-oppressor. He would recognize that he had made a choice in oppressing himself in the interest of surviving among his enemies. Then in later years, when free of them, he would be able to revoke his original compromise in the interest of a more open expression of free will, personal freedom, and the rational pursuit of self-interest. But few children are capable of making this kind of overt, conscious compromise with themselves. They do not have the wherewithal, the courage, or the clarity of vision to become hypocritical in their own self-interest.

It is too dangerous to "fake" the suppression of selfhood because parents, and later teachers and religious authorities as well as siblings, are always on the lookout for danger signals of selfhood in order to suppress them with ridicule and other punishments. It is too easy to make slips if one remains aware of selfhood, while denying it for everyone else's benefit. Besides, the authorities take special offense at "lying" and punish it severely.

So the growing child makes the greatest compromise of his life—he begins to lie to himself as well as to others. He begins to lie about his ability to make choices in a rational manner in the pursuit of personal freedom and self-interest. Especially, he denies the awful anguish that went into his decision to become a self-oppressor. The entire process of disowning himself is then locked away into "the unconscious" and becomes the victim of childhood amnesia or unconsciousness. He reaches adulthood unaware of his innermost reality of himself as a self.

The process of self-oppression is of course as subtle and as complex as the human being's ability to create excuses, myths, lies, fakery, and every other manner of falsehood. The various psychological lifestyles—paranoia, depression, and anxiety—can be understood as styles of decisionmaking in the interest of self-oppression or personal helplessness. On an action level, some children choose themselves into profound states of withdrawal from themselves and the world. This is called "autism." Some rebel in frantic, helpless "hyperactivity." Most find an unhappy medium in the form of partial robotism, sometimes with the help of drugs.

The choice of such obviously self-defeating lifestyles of self-oppression can only be accounted for in terms of the oppressiveness of the typical childhood. Children are the most oppressed class of persons on earth. This is because they are the most powerless. No adult human being is so low within the class structure that he cannot find a child upon whom to take out his frustrations. When oppressed adults reach the bottom of their existence, they tend to resemble children and are compared to children in their own eyes and the eyes of others. This is not because children are pitifully ridiculous by nature but because children are the prototype of abused human beings.


I can underscore the importance of self-oppression in response to childhood oppression by comparing this concept to that of La Boetie, who remained at a loss to explain why human beings choose voluntary servitude at the hands of tyrants. "In the first place," he says, "all would agree that, if we led our lives according to the ways intended by nature and the lessons taught by her, we should be intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become slaves to nobody."

La Boetie is wrong. The self is not intuitively obedient to anyone. My son, Benjamin, who attended the 1976 Libertarian Convention at the ripe age of seven weeks, displays no such intuitive obedience. Throughout the convention he displayed every intention of getting every single one of his needs met at exactly the moment he wanted them met. If he hadn't been nursed the moment the idea occurred to him, his resounding demand—that piercing infant's cry—would have drowned out the speakers on the podium and gained the attention of all 500 members of the audience. Whether he is too wet, too hungry, or simply wants to experiment with lifting up his head, Benjamin makes known his desires without the slightest concern for the desires of anyone else. So much for intuitive obedience!

The typical child becomes obedient because all his other options appear too threatening to him. As he learns to exercise reason, then he uses it for the purpose of pursuing the path of self-suppression in order to minimize the threatening conflicts to which he is constantly exposed. By the time he reaches adulthood, reason is not a technique for pursuing self-interest in cooperative, voluntary relationships; it is a technique for continuing the masquerade of selflessness which I call self-oppression. Thus the child moves from childhood self-oppression in the presence of his parents to adulthood self-oppression in the presence of his siblings, teachers, priests, and government enforcers.

So oppressive is childhood that the typical child yearns above all else to grow up. When he reaches adulthood, the idea that he can drive or drink beer—trivial as it is—symbolizes his liberation from restraint. It hardly enters his mind that he ought to rebel against school, church, and State. He is merely glad to be free of childhood. He will try not to recall it; he will avoid thinking about it; and he will do anything to avoid identifying himself with children. Unlike every other oppressed class, few children grow up to become champions of the children they left behind. It is too painful to be reminded about the degree of servitude. Thus the authoritarian family paves the way for the totalitarian society.

Anthropologists have lamented the lack of transitional rituals from childhood to adulthood in our society. They miss the point. There are no rituals because there is no transition. The child grows up from a self-oppressing young person to a self-oppressing older person. To escape the lessons of his childhood, he must have the courage to overcome and undo all the lying he has done to himself. He must cease to be unaware or "unconscious" about himself and about his aspirations for liberty and love.


In any libertarian process of self-development or self-liberation, the individual must learn to value himself. I want to focus upon this particular aspect of my psychology of self-determination because it is of central importance and because my own viewpoint differs significantly from that incorporated in one of the most important sources of libertarian psychology, Objectivism.

In the psychology of self-determination, learning to value oneself involves two distinguishable processes: building self-esteem and recovering self-love. Self-esteem is familiar to libertarians through the work of Nathaniel Branden. Closely related to self-respect, it has to be earned. When an individual conducts himself ethically or musters the courage and discipline to accomplish his aims, he feels good about himself. Self-esteem is like a barometer of our conduct: it reflects how we are doing in our own eyes. Similarly, esteem for others is much like respect for others; it is determined by how nearly they meet our standards.

Self-esteem is "judgmental," and it should be. Human beings should evaluate themselves and others. But it is dangerous and even disastrous to base one's entire relationship to oneself or to others upon this conditional attitude. If esteem or respect is our only approach to placing value upon ourselves and others, then our feelings toward ourselves and others will roller-coaster in a frightening manner.

On an emotional level, love is joy or happiness in the presence of another human being. In terms of rational values, love is the placement of a high value upon a person as a person or self or living being. Love is unconditional because it is a reaching out to life itself. It is an affirmation of life, or of a particular life. Love for human beings means recognition of our common humanity or selfhood.

Love is the basis for granting rights to others. It says in effect "We are all selves; all of us therefore have the same rights." While this may seem like a radical idea—that we grant rights out of our identification with others rather than out of abstract principles—it is not new as a libertarian concept. Toward the end of his book, La Boetie says of the tyrant: "It is because he does not know how to love that he ultimately impoverishes his own spirit and destroys his own empire.…The fact is that the tyrant is never truly loved, nor does he love." This lack of love is then directly linked to lack of love for the liberty of others. The tyrant "finds himself beyond the pale of friendship, which receives its real sustenance for an equality that, to proceed without a limp, must have its two limbs equal."

Here La Boetie touches upon a major thesis of the psychology of self-determination—that love can flourish where there is freedom; and where there is freedom, love will tend to flourish. Voluntary relationships between individuals with equal rights promote love, and love promotes voluntary relationships.


The concept of love as an unconditional value placed upon life itself is as important to self-love as to love for others. Self-love, or the unconditional placement of value upon ourselves as expressions of life, is the basis for granting ourselves the right to pursue self-interest. We pursue self-interest because we recognize our value. Similarly, we grant the right to others to pursue their self-interest because we recognize their value as expressions of life.

Self-love is not earned but recovered. It is rediscovered within oneself as an essential capacity of the self to know its own value. The infant does not have to learn that it should pursue its own self-interest. It does so from the start, or it would not survive or thrive. The infant does not have to learn joy over being fed and touched, nor does it have to learn joy over human companionship. The infant experiences self-love and then gives it up under oppressive batterings. The giving up of self love is among the most damaging aspects of self-oppression.

Once self-love is firmly reestablished, the individual can go on with his life in a self-fulfilling manner regardless of his errors or mistakes along the way. He will become what all persons must become in order to thrive—self-loving.

The failure to recognize love as separable from esteem is the major theoretical failure of Objectivism. Objectivism bases human value wholly upon human accomplishment. When Randian characters fall in their own esteem, the bottom falls out of their value for themselves. This is especially obvious in the lives of Ayn Rand's women characters, who start out as non-Objectivists who hate themselves. With human value made wholly conditional, they feel hero worship for their more Objectivist men, while they loathe themselves. Similarly, Randian characters hate others who fail to meet their standards and often end up loathing mankind in general. John Galt's famous speech in Atlas Shrugged illustrates that completely. He will not love those whom he cannot esteem, and he ends up loathing the very audience to whom he is addressing himself. Hence the specter of something hateful toward most people in a philosophy allegedly based upon valuing the individual.

It is much more sound to base one's value of oneself and others upon a rock-bottom conviction that all life has potential value and that all life deserves love. This does not mean that we respect ourselves or others when we fail to meet important standards of conduct; it does mean that we never lose sight of the humanity of others or of ourselves.


Libertarians tend not to take human attitudes toward each other into account when hoping for and planning for a more libertarian world. They tend to think in terms of reordering the society or, more accurately, of removing artificially imposed order in favor of voluntary relationships. How and why this libertarian society will then maintain itself against the forces of human greed and hate is left unanswered or passed off with the unproven assertion that the competitive balance of powers will maintain liberty. But why believe that self-interest, unleavened by love for mankind or love for human liberty, will itself lead people to respect each other's rights? Instead, as long as individuals pursue their own self-interest without an unconditional commitment to the rights of others, individuals will tend to aggrandize themselves in whatever way they can.

A libertarian society will thrive only when individuals are willing to value each other as human beings, even if they do not know or care for each other. It will thrive only when individuals are willing to value each other's freedom regardless of any gain or loss to themselves. Libertarianism will become a viable principle of society whenever men and women become willing to live by, and, if necessary, to fight for each other's liberty.

Such a society may be a long way off. Perhaps it will never be realized within the history of mankind. Since its realization depends upon individual decisionmaking, no one can predict the outcome. But each of us can begin creating a libertarian niche for ourselves in our own private lives. We can learn to live by the twin principles of liberty and love in our personal lives. We can also raise our children in families free of force and fraud and encourage them to live their own lives as they please, provided only that they respect the equal rights of others to pursue their own lives as they please.

Each of us can actually enlarge the libertarian arena within which we live by making our personal, private space as free and loving as possible. To do this we must understand self-oppression, and we must overcome it in favor of the rational pursuit of self-interest, including our ideals of liberty and love. While each of us may have but a small impact on the wider society, we can be sure of an enormous impact upon ourselves, our friends, and our family.

Peter Breggin, M.D., is an author and a psychiatrist. He has published two novels and is in the private practice of psychiatry in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.