Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

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