How to Be Free

By John "Birdman" Bryant


In his article "How a state collapses" (WorldNetDaily, 25 May 2000), Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr outlines a theory of how a people may initiate the collapse of a tyrannical government to whose authority they do not consent. He begins by noting that, among political philosophers, only a 'few geniuses' have considered the dynamics of state collapse, among them Etienne de la Boetie, who wrote in his 1550s tract Discourse on Voluntary  Servitude that 'in order to have liberty nothing more is needed than to long for it.' This is because tyrants are "automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: It is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude."

In other words, Boetie seems to be saying that all that is required to topple a tyrant is that people refuse to cooperate with him -- an act which in the present day would be called passive resistance or passive civil  disobedience. Boetie's strategy is effective because a tyranny cannot be sustained without the cooperation of a majority of its victims: their non- cooperation, while not attacking the tyrannical authority directly, nevertheless 'gums up the works' so that such authority cannot effectively operate.

But if Boetie's strategy sounds good in theory, it has some deficiencies in practice. One of these is what might be called the defector problem: While we may all be resolved to passively resist any tyranny, nobody wants to be a martyr; so if you are the one the authorities have decided to make an example of, it is tempting to take the easy way out and cooperate (ie, 'defect'), particularly if the alternative is crucifixion.

But the real problem with the Boetiean strategy is the problem of information: First, people have to be educated about the strategy (ie, have information on it), and second, they have to agree among themselves to pursue this strategy (ie, they have to convey the information about their agreement to each other). Furthermore, they have to have information on defectors in order to punish them, so that the strategy will be kept from eroding and possibly falling apart. Unfortunately, however, while the Boetiean strategy might be made known to many, the informational pathways which would give people the ability to assent among themselves and to determine defectors are in most cases very restricted, particularly when the tyrant controls the major media of communication.

Adding to the informational difficulties is the ability of the authorities to censor information, and to manipulate it. This poses a special problem for the Boetiean strategy because of what is known in systems theory as a negative feedback loop. To explain, if the authorities can use the mass media to convince the populace that everything is all beer and skittles, or at least that opponents of the regime tend to come to unpleasant ends, then this discourages resistance, and encourages defection. What is going on here is that, because people see (or rather, "see") that resistance is futile, this discourages resistance and thus makes it even more futile, which makes it yet more futile, ad infinitum, ie, the process feeds back into itself to converge to a state of total defection and totalitarian subjugation.

A closely-related case of feedback which stabilizes tyranny in 'democratic' countries is what, for lack of better terminology, may be called a 'non- proportional-representation election system'. By this I mean any system in which there are just two (or occasionally three) major political parties or candidates, and where the only voting option is to vote for just one. The effect of such a system is to marginalize the competition by inducing voters to vote for one of the two or three major parties or candidates on the theory that a vote for a minor party or candidate will constitute 'wasting one's vote'. The dynamic here is that, by convincing each voter that the competition 'can't win', this forecloses that very possibility, ie, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which belief of impossibility causes the impossibility. This, of course, is a feedback loop similar to the one discussed above.

To foreclose the feedback loop which puts political competition out of the loop, it is necessary to have a proportional-representation electoral system. In the principal form in which it has actually been instituted (mostly in Europe), each voter casts his vote for a single party, and the proportion of the total votes cast which a party attracts determines the number of the party's representatives to hold seats in the legislative assembly. In terms of systems theory, the proportional-representation system is superior not merely because it disrupts the feedback loop which damps out political competition, but also because it is a more accurate method of conveying the information of voter preferences to the body which will do the governing; and for this reason I advocated such a system in my book Systems Theory and Scientific Philosophy. In reading my book, however, the late internationally-known polymath Prof Hans Eysenck took issue with my enthusiasm for proportional representation on the basis that it tends to produce unstable governments; but in reflecting on his comment, it seems to me that this is actually a valuable feature of such a system -- after all, an unstable government is less likely to be able to effectively meddle in the affairs of its citizens.

From the above discussion, we see that the key to implementing the Boetiean strategy for defeating tyranny is the free flow of information. As it happens, however, the importance of the free flow of information goes far beyond this; for as I have shown in Systems Theory, it is actually the key to moral behavior and the maximization of social good. It is not, then, merely a convenient metaphor to speak of immorality and evil as the Dark Side, for the fleurs du mal grow and flourish only when bathed in the darkness of ignorance and secrecy. It is for just such reasons that tyrants seek to control information; and it is why some of the worst tyranosaurians of the present day seek to control the Internet. At this time it is not at all certain that the Net will survive the chokeholds which the censors are attempting to place around its neck, but it is by far the most promising insurance against tyranny which humanity has ever purchased.

But if information is a major problem in human freedom, an even more fundamental problem is determining exactly what freedom is. The slave, for example, is always free to not work, but he will not be free of the punishment which his 'freedom' imposes. Likewise, he is free to run away, but -- if successful -- he will not be free of earning his own living (as opposed to having it provided by his master) -- a point much emphasized by Marxists in criticizing the 'wage slavery' of capitalism -- nor will he be free from defending his freedom from others who may wish to take it away. What I am driving at is that it is misleading to say we are 'free' or 'unfree'; rather we can only say that there are different circumstances of living, each of which imposes its own unique constraints on freedom. Another way to put this, perhaps, is to quote the line of the popular song which goes, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to loose": Our ultimate goal is not 'freedom', but rather the kind of 'slavery' which makes our life most satisfying.

A good way to emphasize the above point is to observe that, in many respects, the Mafia are the freest men in the world: They make a free market in products which people want -- drugs, porn, prostitution, loans, assassinations, counterfeit money, and so on -- and acquire a good deal more freedom than most of us have from the money they make doing it. But if they are free to do many things, they are also not free to do others: they cannot behave freely in the sense that they are always having to watch their back, either because of their enemies or because of the police.

The men who founded America came seeking freedom, and they found it: the freedom to starve, to acquire exotic diseases, to be assaulted by Indians, and to fight among themselves. The Noble Savage is free in much the same way: He is free of civilization, and also free of its advantages. The lesson, then, is that civilization imposes significant constraints on behavior; but in imposing those constraints, it makes men free in other and more valuable ways -- free to ride the roads, read the literature, soar in space, and surf the Net (yeah -- feelthy peectures!). These are freedoms the Noble Savage, in all his freedom, has never even imagined; so the question is, Are the tradeoffs we make in acquiring the advantages of civilization worth giving up the freedom of the Noble Savage? In the majority vote which people take with their feet, the answer is a resounding Yes.

So how, then, can the individual be free in the best sense, particularly from the political tyrant? That is, how can he best find the kind of situation in life to which he is most ready to devote (ie, enslave) himself? To answer this question we must really address two issues -- what the individual can do, and how society should be structured. While there is no formula for freedom, there are a great many particular things which can be done to enhance freedom. While I have investigated a number of these in my book Handbook of the Coming American Revolution -- particularly as they apply to the way society should be structured -- I have collected a number of other suggestions below which I think the reader may find helpful or thought-provoking:

* People cannot be free if they are ignorant, and the more knowledgeable a person is, the more likely he is to be free -- or to be able to free himself. But because the information available to people is overwhelming in volume, it is necessary to develop good criteria for selecting the information you imbibe. Here are some helpful rules: (1) Prefer books to periodicals. Books are far more likely to have enduring value; periodicals are, by their very nature, transitory in worth. (2) If you like something an author writes, read more of his stuff. An author whom you find interesting is more likely to have written other material that will please you than an author you have no knowledge of. (3) Modern books are usually better than older ones. This is partly because modern books benefit from more up-to-date knowledge (tho they don't always), and partly because the publishing business is now very competitive, unlike in earlier days, years, or centuries; and competition means the best will generally rise to the top (ie, get published). A great many older books ('classics') are much overpraised, but it took me a long time to figure out that it was the books which were lousy, and not my taste. (4) Don't waste your time reading lousy stuff, even if it is supposed to be 'important'. If it's lousy, chances are it's not important at all, at least for your purposes.

* A small but well-organized and highly-dedicated group can have a significant political or social impact. Mass movements are fine if you can create one, but chances are you can't. So remember -- in political activism, as in government, small is beautiful.

* Most of the unpleasant (and hence freedom-negative) situations which people get themselves into could have been avoided if only one of the parties had utilized good manners. I say this on the basis of having had many conflicts with others, yet never ending up with any enemies (ok, hardly ever). I take this to be due to my always being fair, admitting my own faults, never insulting anyone (tho often criticizing vigorously), and recognizing that no one (including myself) is perfect, and that getting along in this world requires tolerating such imperfection.

* Make a habit of doing good turns without expecting compensation. In the long term it will yield great benefits -- it will enhance your reputation, particularly if you do things anonymously, but 'get caught' in the act; and it will encourage others to behave in the same way and thereby make the world a better (and freer) place for all of us.

* Don't be a sheeple -- if someone pushes you, push back. In contrast to to doing good turns, one must be careful not to let anyone intrude on one's freedom -- to do so is only an invitation for them (and others) to intrude more. Accordingly, while one need not make a big deal out of small slights, any clear case of intrusion must be met head-on. This is important not merely to discourage further intrusion, but to fix your reputation as one not to be intruded on. But if you have to chasten someone, keep your response appropriate to the degree of offense you were given -- you don't want to start a Hatfield-McCoy feud (ie, a feedback loop of revenge in which the responses keep escalating). A special and very important case in point is when you are intruded upon by government bureaucrats: In such a case you must determine the person who is responsible for bothering you, and see that he is bothered in response as much as he can possibly be bothered. Bureaucrats don't generally want to fool with people who fight back -- they would rather buffalo someone else who costs them no pain and who can make them look good by kowtowing to them.

* Never do anything you wouldn't want anyone else to find out about, ie, don't act 'immorally'. That's because shameful acts have a way of becoming public, and a person who has a reputation for shameful behavior is less free than one with a sterling reputation. But on the other hand, if you have done shameful things, the best way to handle them is the Bill Clinton way -- just behave as if they were inconsequential. (What seems to be happening in such a case is that people tend to value you as you value yourself -- if you regard your behavior as correct or inconsequentially immoral, others will come to do the same.)

* Establish a community who will help you in time of need. One of the reasons that Americans are more vulnerable to tyranny in the present day is because family ties have been greatly weakened -- in most cases by government actions which take over family responsibilities (welfare, social security, unemployment, education, etc). The result is that people are no longer connected to a network of others, but are rather isolated individuals whom the government finds vulnerable in their aloneness, and thus finds easy to manipulate by threats or force. There are many kinds of communities besides families which people have established, and which have served to make them less vulnerable to the world at large. Simple friendships are one example, tho they are often unsatisfactory because they are superficial and based on little else than exchange of drinks or dinners. Clubs and mutual aid societies are often better; but the best are associations formed under conditions of mutual activity or struggle, as in combat, political activism, working closely together on a job, or the like. Another useful association in this regard is the condominium: When people live in close association for a long time, they develop friendship and trust in a natural way; and for this reason the condo may prove in time to be one of the best substitutes for the 'small town' (and maybe even the family) ever invented. The basic mechanism of establishing a community which will help you is to establish a network of mutual obligations. Under such circumstances people will be far more inclined to help you than if they don't know you from Adam, irrespective of how impressive and compelling your cause.

* Make as much moolah as you can -- a wealthy man is freer than a poor one for the simple reason that a wealthy man can do a lot more things than a poor one. And since America is a wealthy society, this means there are many more people who have resources they can devote to promoting freedom -- if not America's, then at least their own.

* Avoid the legal system if you can -- justice, such as it is (and it usually isn't), is a crapshoot, and besides -- and far more importantly -- resorting to the courts is usually a confession that interpersonal relations have broken down (see discussion of manners above). What is more, losing in court may mean losing money or your freedom, and even winning means losing lawyer fees; so there is little freedom to be found in court. On the other hand, however, if you must use a court, here are some suggestions: (1) Get your adversary to agree to binding arbitration. The American Arbitration Association is often used by disputing parties in order to stay out of court, and there are many private arbitrators whose listings can be found in the Yellow Pages. With an arbitrator, you don't have to have a lawyer, and you can make your case the way you want to, and without all the legal fol-de-rol. And best of all, the courts almost always uphold the settlements of binding arbitration, so when the arbitrator makes his decision, it's final. (2) If you are forced to go to (a government) court, you don't necessarily have to have a lawyer. You may do better by hiring a paralegal (they're listed in the Yellow Pages), and have them help you in preparing your case. They can show you how to do research or help you do it (most research for lawyers is done by paralegals), and can give you help with the legal formalities that you will need to know in order to represent yourself. Yet another alternative is to find a lawyer who will let you and your paralegal do most of the research and preparation yourself, and whose main function is to read what you come up with and actually present your case in court (This will permit a big saving in hourly legal fees). (3) If you want to sue someone, don't do it unless you can find a lawyer who will take the case on a contingency basis, ie, his payment -- if any -- is a percentage of the amount you win in court. What this does is to keep you out of a losing situation in court -- after all, if a lawyer doesn't think he can make anything out of the case, why should you think that you can?

* Don't fall for the liberal-conservative dichotomy. It is false and misleading, and is easily used by tyrants to restrict freedom. For example, our 'conservative' tyrants have given us a 'war on drugs' which has eviscerated many of our rights; while our liberal tyrants have given us 'civil rights' which have eviscerated even more rights. The point is that the only real political divide is between small government (whose harm is limited) and Big Government (whose harm seems to be unlimited) -- a divide which really translates into the question of how much taxes should the government be allowed to impose on us (right now American taxpayers are estimated to pay 40% of their incomes, which I imagine is actually a far too conservative number if the hidden taxes such as 'fees' and (government- caused) inflation are taken into account).

* Don't buy into the politically-correct nonsense in which men and women are said to be 'equal'. What this idiotic doctrine has done is to provide a rationale for feminizing men, thus making them weaker and less aggressive in protecting their own and their family's freedom, and making them more easily manipulated by government bureaucrats.

* Keep in mind that the most effective fights for freedom are not fights at all, but simple avoidance. For example, moving from a high-tax state like Massachusetts to a low-tax state like Florida is a great way to vote with your feet for freedom, while avoiding wear and tear on yourself. "He who fights by running away, will fight more fiercely another day."

* The most important fights for freedom are not over drugs, sex or other pleasure activities, but rather over more subtle issues like speech, gun control, and -- most important of all -- taxes. The reason for this is that pleasure activities have a natural constituency -- the people who indulge in the activity -- who can be expected, in one way or another, to fight for freedom in these areas because it is very much in their personal interest to do so. This is not to say that such fights are not important, for they very much are -- it is just to say that they are not priority.

* Sow the seeds of freedom -- you may find that what you have sown will help you when you need it. Distribute literature in your neighborhood; talk to your neighbors; exchange videos; educate your local police; use your imagination.

* It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Furthermore, as J Edgar Hoover once remarked, freedom must be 'rewon for each generation'. Both assertions are true because there is always someone eager to enhance his power by taking away your freedom. Accordingly, if you are too cowardly or too negligent to fight, you are going to end up as somebody's slave. Which, given your behavior, is exactly in my opinion how you should end up.

* If you have to become a revolutionary (and I hope things won't come to that), don't fight the tyranny's soldiers -- instead, target its leaders. When the head is gone, the body will collapse.

We began this essay by considering how a tyranny might be made to collapse, but our real consideration has been a far more important one -- to steal the title of libertarian Harry Browne's selfishly-offputting screaming-Me!- Me! book, it has been "How to find freedom in an unfree world". This is important not merely because governments don't collapse that often, but because the school of thought (libertarianism) from which Lew Rockwell comes -- tho perhaps not Rockwell himself -- have a fascination with anarchy which is akin to the fascination which little children have with their toilet activities -- a fascination which keeps them from recognizing that anarchy is an unstable state which generally ushers in a tyranny which is worse than the one which it replaced. Government, like the poor, will always be with us -- the trick is to make it serve us and not vice versa. More to the point, perhaps, is to realize that freedom isn't free -- it exacts a cost that not all men are willing to pay, and often requires tradeoffs that not all men are not willing to make. More than this, however, is the fact that one cannot be truly free unless he is willing to lay down his life for that freedom. But once a man makes that decision -- once he has decided that he would rather 'live free or die', he becomes free by the very act of his decision. Living free is an act of courage and commitment, but it is an act which lifts from a man's shoulders the burden that others carry as shackles.

To: Lew Rockwell From: John Bryant Date: June 25, 2000

Since you and I both know that I write at least as well as (and probably a lot better than) most of the writers you feature on your webpage, I'd like to know what exactly is the reason why you won't accept my essays for your page. There are, of course, several obvious candidates. One of these is that I don't revere, and in fact have severely criticized, your hero Murray Rothbard; however, if this is the reason, then your attitude would seem a bit petty, as I have perfectly good reasons for my opinions, which I gave in detail in my book Libertarian Dirt, which I sent you a copy of awhile back, and which you never so much as thanked me for.

Another possibility of why you reject my articles is you think I am an 'antisemite'. But of course you yourself are politically incorrect, so you are as open as I am to liberal smears, even if my particular offense is different from yours. But here again I have perfectly good reasons for being politically incorrect about Jews, and if you want to get a fix on my attitudes, I strongly suggest you check out my webpage at where there is a wealth of material on the subject. There may be a lot of people who don't like what I say, but I haven't met anyone yet who can answer my arguments, including two columnists at WorldNetDaily, who tried but failed.

A third possibility is that I am an atheist. But here again I have my reasons, which I imagine are a lot more logically and empirically solid than your religious beliefs.

What I am getting at is this: You and I are a lot alike in major ways, and people who are alike ought to be able to work together. Furthermore, while you are good at what you do, I am also good at what I do -- possibly even better than you (and maybe, of course, that is exactly what you are afraid of). So your refusal to answer my letters -- to say nothing of posting my articles or otherwise working with me -- is not merely bad manners (and perhaps immoral -- after all, doesn't Christianity tell you to love your enemies, to say nothing of your neighbors?), but strategically unsound. If people as similar as you and I can't work together, then who can? But what should be really important to you is that my talents can add substantially to your webpage, just as it is important to me that my posting on your already-established webpage can contribute to my becoming better known. Being a dissenter myself, I am well aware that people don't have to hold all the same opinions (or even any at all) in order to work together -- all they have to do is to find their relationship mutually profitable.

As a result of the fact that I read at least some of the articles on your page every day, I have noted that you seem to be flirting with the Jewish Question, tho it seems that you can't quite bring yourself to confront it directly, in spite of the obvious fact that you see it to be important. In this respect I could prove helpful to you by introducing your readers to this subject, since it would be mostly me who would take whatever heat would be generated, and which would be no problem for me.

This letter is a test, Lew. It is a test of your manners, your morals, your intelligence, your skill at interpersonal relations, your sense of strategy, your willingness to profit from an important opportunity, and even a test of your Christian faith. I can only make the offer. You are the one who has to grab it.

In conclusion, please note that I have included below another article of mine inspired by a piece on your website -- as it happens, an article written by you. I have spent a lot of time on it, and I believe you may find it interesting. [The article was "How to Be Free", above.]

Note: Lew didn't answer. I guess he failed the test.




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