Monday, May 18, 2015
John Stossel, a commentator I usually find worthwhile, writes approvingly of a foolish proposal he recently encountered in By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, by Charles Murray:
... Government has become so oppressive, constantly restricting us with new regulations, that our only hope is for some of us to refuse to cooperate.And, a few paragraphs later:
Murray argues that citizens and companies should start openly defying all but the most useful regulations, essentially ones that forbid assault, theft and fraud.
What if we all stopped trying? The government can't put everyone in jail. Maybe by disobeying enough stupid laws, we can persuade judges that only rules that prevent clear, real harm to individuals should be enforced: "no harm, no foul."There are many things wrong with this proposal, but I will touch on just a couple here.
Law is not always the best indication of what is good behavior. Riots in places such as Ferguson and Baltimore remind us that even cops sometimes behave badly.
First, Stossel (if not also Murray) equivocates between law and regulation and, worse, he does not distinguish between proper laws and improper laws. At the same time, Stossel appeals to popular offense against intrusive, improper laws and regulations (while failing to make this important distinction) by implying that their great sin is "uselessness". Pardon me for pointing out that even the worst offenses against liberty in the books are there precisely because somebody, somewhere, argued that they were useful enough to be put on the books, and enough of the electorate was unconcerned enough to allow them to stay there. Rather than bickering about whether some law (out of an overwhelming number) is "useful" or not, we really need a national conversation about what government is for. If we did that, and proponents of the view that a proper government is that which protects individual rights carry the day, there will be great political pressure to get rid of improper laws and regulations on principle. Many people recoil from a debate over first principles because it seems complicated and far removed from reality, but this is really the only way to economically consign entire swaths of law to the dustbin of history, rather than get mired in bickering over countless particulars. (Or, and this is what this proposal really amounts to, just giving up on the whole idea of creating a proper government or achieving one by an orderly process.)
Second, as this proposal stands, who knows what perfectly legitimate set of laws (e.g., private property) some large faction of people might decide is "useless" and begin disobeying wholesale? Stossel's own examples of the dangerous anarchy in Ferguson and Baltimore show us exactly where this proposal can and will go without the kind of conversation and legal process I just described.
This proposal, which I've seen called "civil disobedience", may seem tempting tactically, but it offends morally and strategically. Ayn Rand's thoughts on that topic should indicate why, in light of some of the problems I have just pointed out regarding acting before thinking in the name of securing liberty:
Civil disobedience may be justifiable, in some cases, when and if an individual disobeys a law in order to bring an issue to court, as a test case. Such an action involves respect for legality and a protest directed only at a particular law which the individual seeks an opportunity to prove to be unjust. The same is true of a group of individuals when and if the risks involved are their own.I must state my disagreement with the idea implicit in this proposal that it is too late to save our country by legal, civilized means, starting with moral suasion. I shudder to imagine what would result from such a "revolution", when even the best of the insurgents -- the ones wielding the supposedly mighty pens -- don't even achieve clarity for themselves regarding the final objective.
But there is no justification, in a civilized society, for the kind of mass civil disobedience that involves the violation of the rights of others -- regardless of whether the demonstrators' goal is good or evil. The end does not justify the means. No one's rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others. Mass disobedience is an assault on the concept of rights: it is a mob's defiance of legality as such.
The forcible occupation of another man's property or the obstruction of a public thoroughfare is so blatant a violation of rights that an attempt to justify it becomes an abrogation of morality. An individual has no right to do a "sit-in" in the home or office of a person he disagrees with -- and he does not acquire such a right by joining a gang. Rights are not a matter of numbers -- and there can be no such thing, in law or in morality, as actions forbidden to an individual, but permitted to a mob.
The only power of a mob, as against an individual, is greater muscular strength -- i.e., plain, brute physical force. The attempt to solve social problems by means of physical force is what a civilized society is established to prevent. The advocates of mass civil disobedience admit that their purpose is intimidation. A society that tolerates intimidation as a means of settling disputes -- the physical intimidation of some men or groups by others -- loses its moral right to exist as a social system, and its collapse does not take long to follow.
Politically, mass civil disobedience is appropriate only as a prelude to civil war -- as the declaration of a total break with a country's political institutions. [bold added]