Undemocratic Democracy: The American System as a Realization of Voluntary Servitude



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Acting according to one’s own wants and needs demonstrates a capacity to exert free will. Consensually and willingly participating in subjection under a sovereign leader is also demonstrative of an ability to exercise free will. Correspondingly, the idea of voluntary servitude is the same; it functions as a way to work for and benefit authoritative and sovereign figures, while also requiring an individual’s active consent. Voluntary servitude is not exclusively physical. People, who choose to serve, relinquish part of their freedom and work to maintain the systems that keep their leaders in power. The choice is made, often without the promise that their compliance will personally benefit them, or the guarantee that their leaders will fulfill their duties because, in this system, those in power can almost never be held accountable. These leaders maintain their authority through the political, class, or social hierarchies, and are empowered by the consent of the public. It is the French philosopher, Étienne de La Boétie, who explicates this behavior, identifying attempts to achieve upward social mobility, adoration, and habit as the reasons citizens might decide to submit to a higher authority. Approaching this topic in a manner similar to Boétie, I use this paper to explore the concept of voluntary servitude, to comprehend why Americans willingly partake in submission under the American government. Furthermore, I analyze how the topic is related to and presents itself in systems of democracy; specifically, America’s “democracy”. To do so, this paper will explore the philosophical thought that both inspired and challenged democracy in America. Ultimately, this paper will explore the ways in which voluntary servitude is conceptualized by different thinkers. Additionally, and most importantly, this paper will determine how voluntary servitude functions as an inherent feature of democracy.



American System, Voluntary Servitude, Boétie, Democracy, Political Theory