On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

Governments have this historically nasty habit of sooner or later oppressing their own people. Typically, the vehicle they use as the driver for this is some form of what they claim is the “law.” As the old adage goes, “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.”



Anarchistic sentiments are expressed by the author as being the logical end of minarchism, considering the very nature of government itself. This is expressed as, “’That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient… I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”

Thoreau goes on to state that, “Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice.” This is interesting when it is compared to Bastiat’s conception of the Law, which is a form of collective self-defense. However, even Bastiat saw that the Law could become perverted against its original purpose by either partial or universal plunder, which I think Thoreau was attempting to describe here.

It is stated by Thoreau that, “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its efficiency are great and unendurable… I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” This is about as firm a philosophical blow to pacifism as I have ever read. The author is appealing to the right of revolution (which itself is another form of collective self-defense) as the moral justification for when the Law becomes contradictory unto itself and thus fails in providing collective self-defense (put another way, the right of revolution is the backup form of collective self-defense for when the Law becomes a systematic failure to secure Liberty).

Paley is cited as a moral philosopher who reduces the right of revolution down to a simple cost-benefit analysis by virtue of the fact that, “…the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other.” Thoreau vehemently disagrees with this, since he views the right of revolution as an inherent duty once conditions have deteriorated to the point where the Law is systematically perverted, even if the costs of doing so are numerously grievous. He justifies this by saying, “But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may.”

Interestingly, Thoreau modifies his support for the right of revolution by postulating, “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any [evil], even to the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” This forms the foundation for modern civil disobedience, in that you are not so much resisting (physically fighting) the government, but you are instead engaging in what is essentially little different from non-compliance. Thoreau posits the $64,000 question, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

The rest of this mini-treatise is spent on Thoreau’s time in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax. Had the funds gone directly to what they were ostensibly allocated for, then he would have been happy to pay it since it would benefit his community. But since it went through the mechanizations of the State, Thoreau had absolutely no way of knowing if his taxes were being used for that purpose exclusively, or whether it was otherwise partially or even totally being applied to some other venture instead, such as the Mexican-American War of 1846 that he so vehemently opposed.

It would seem to be the case that Thoreau was attempting to apply the moral justification of the right of revolution towards non-compliance, thereby suggesting that non-compliance is not optional, but required. This concept seems to have been polluted to some degree, even if only by happenstance. Contemporary forms of civil disobedience are almost always depicted as some form of street protest. While I can appreciate the aesthetic appeal of visually depicting a mob allegedly “doing something” by swarming the roads, it strongly implies that civil disobedience must take the form of a sit-in, strike, protest demonstration, and the like. This is not at all accurate, especially considering the promulgation of “peaceful” protests or getting permits to protest in the first place.

Civil disobedience is fundamentally the practice of deliberately violating mala prohibita. It may or may not include other people. It may or may not require physical resistance. Finally, it may or may not entail the desire to be arrested and thus attempt to overturn a legal precedent that violates mala in se through jury nullification. The most common attribute, despite the dissimilar methods used, lies with its practitioners’ willingness to essentially ignore the dictates of the State, and thus deal with the consequences of that whatever it may be (if there are any at all), since they no longer possess the liberty of engaging in those activities without a threat of violence from the State.

Henry Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience is a must read for every single political dissident, regardless of your specific persuasion. It encapsulates the moral, ethical, and philosophical resistance to the State whenever it runs afoul of the Law, thereby necessitating the right of revolution. As a baby-step towards flexing that ability, civil disobedience serves as a sort of “gateway drug” towards more seriously effective revolutionary activity. It takes non-compliance (which may or may not violate mala prohibita) to the next level by insisting that disagreeing with the existence of some tyrannical dictate of the State is an inherent duty, which by doing so is little more than engaging in collective self-defense. Anyone who neglects to fulfill their duty is to be considered an accomplice to an enemy rebel government and dealt with accordingly (even if it is an unwitting acquiescence to tyrants). Such food for thought bears the most serious reflection, for the consequences of any choice in this matter possesses a rippling effect throughout civilization, whether for good or ill.

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2 Responses to On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

  1. Pingback: Chilling Dissent: How Government Demonizes Americans | From the Trenches World Report

  2. Pingback: Williamson County Commissioner's Court Meeting (9.29.15) - Liberty Under Attack

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