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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Thoreau: Civil Disobedience


Blogger SMJ said...

Henry David Thoreau was no fan of democracy. For to approve of democracy, you need a certain minimal faith in the wisdom and good will of the "demos" or people. You also have to believe that the government which serves the people is not a corrupt or evil institution, but merely an extension of the people's desire for a decent, orderly life. Today, however, it has become fashionable to view the division between public and private sectors as a kind of ugly trench war between tyranny and freedom, in which the cause of liberty requires the suppression of a ruthless invader. Thoreau, himself, believed that government was intrusive, virulent, never to be trusted, and that, left to its own devices, it would trample over the rights of men whenever it was deemed favorable to its own interest. Thus, his treatise on civil disobedience aims to disclose the malign nature of government, and how its citizens should behave in relation to it.

Thoreau says that "government is at best but an expedient" ... and "that government is best which governs not at all." Which raises the obvious question, if government is bad, why then does it exist? Thoreau has characterized it as an "expedient," not as something necessary to the welfare of man. An expedient is a means to an end. A solution to a problem. And here, Thoreau is silent. He does not discuss the problem that government is meant to solve. And the problem, quite simply, is that men living in nature do not behave themselves. In fact, they destroy one another readily whenever their interests collide, and with a disturbing frequency, interfere with one another's business with no regard for the rights of property or the safety and well-being of their neighbor. Hence, government, as Hobbes demonstrated, provides what man is unable to provide for himself...i.e. the preservation of his life and property.

Thoreau believes that, far from preserving one's life and property, governments will steal and murder when it suits their pleasure. Thus, taxation is just another form of theft, and military drafts (or capital punishment) are little more than state sanctioned murder.

Thoreau even questions the basic principle of majority rule...

"After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?"

So, Thoreau criticizes both the form and the practice of democratic government. It is corrupt because it uses power to enforce its will, and thus, from a practical standpoint, it imposes its will not because it is right to do so, but because it can. Thus, any government based on majority rule invests power in the sentiments of a mob, not on what is the right (or "virtuous") thing to do.

The proper way to answer this argument is to revisit the deliberations of the constitutional convention. Unless you believe that any and all government is worse than living in a state of nature, a sentiment clearly held by Thoreau, then you must conclude that some form of government is needed. If some form of government is required for a decent life, then the question arises, what form should that government take? Throughout history, many forms have been tried, some with more success than others, most of them authoritarian. In the Politics, Aristotle examines the virtues and defects of the most common forms of government, from monarchies to aristocracies to democracies. Aristotle concludes that all forms of government are defective in some manner, but some are more harmful than others. Democratic rule is based on the expedient principle that the majority of the people should rule over the minority. However, as Thoreau suggests, having an opinion shared by a majority is not the same thing as having the best opinion. And so, now you have the added difficulty of determining which opinion is "best."

Ideally, government should consist of the wisest people in society, exhibiting sober judgment and being steadfast in virtue. If this were so in reality, then government would be a meritocracy, or rule by the best. But ambition and pride are more often found in rulers than humility, so rule by the best is not usually possible in democracies. The members of the continental congress decided to compromise between the extremes of aristocracy and democracy. Thus, the House of Representatives reflects the will of the majority, whereas the Senate expresses the will of the best, at least in theory. Of course, this is only a simplistic view of the function of our bicameral system, but it provides a sense of the populist and aristocratic views that comprise our government.

Thoreau believes that no government should have the final say in matters of conscience. His position is primarily ethical, not political. In a just society, the "right" thing to do should determine how our government acts. But government, being nothing more than an extension of the people it serves, is divided in its opinion on what justice means. Ultimately, we defer to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, justice and law sometimes diverge, even in the best of societies. So Thoreau poses the question, how should an individual respond when presented with an unjust law? He says, unequivocally...

"All men recognize the right of rebellion; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable."

But, of course, the problem in society is that "all" men do not agree on anything, ever. This is why they require the services of an arbitrator which, in the end, is exactly what government provides. Thoreau believes that every man should be his own arbitrator, which essentially returns us to our original state of nature, prior to the formation of polities-- every man deciding for himself what is just and right. Now in this state, where no arbitrator rules, how are matters of conscience to be decided? Once laws are suspended and authority ignored or abolished, conflicts of morality will be decided as they always have been prior to governments being instituted. In other words, by superior power. Absent laws or government, conflicts are resolved not by reason but as all other animals in nature resolve them, by force or the threat of force. It is hard to see how this arrangement will bring us any closer to justice.

The requirement for justice in our society is contained in our commitment to natural rights. Those rights, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (i.e. the freedom to pursue what we individually hope to achieve) constitute the bedrock of what we, in the western hemisphere, believe necessary for justice. Insofar as government veers off track and leaves behind the protection of these rights, we as individuals must hold it accountable. Today, many people look to the Courts as the defender of these rights. But the institution of the Courts, and the process of filling court vacancies, has become so polarized that we can no longer assume that the interests of justice will always prevail.

Even so, what is promised in our republic is only the freedom to pursue happiness, not the attainment of it. Justice is the ideal for which we strive, but often the formal manifestations of justice (the right to a fair trial, the appellate court system, free press, etc.) fall short of the ideal. Thoreau mocks the discrepancy between what was promised and what is delivered by our constitutional form of government. But, the truth is that without government, nothing in the way of justice could even be promised, much less delivered. His argument seems to be that if we cannot have a perfect form of government, delivering a perfect standard of justice, with absolute freedom for all, then we are better off without any government. This is pure philosophical idealism on display in all its glory and all its foolishness.

The desire for absolute freedom and perfect social harmony are fundamentally in conflict with one another. This problem replicates the quandary that man faced in the world's first utopia. Adam and Eve were content in the Garden of Eden only as long as they obeyed God's law. Once they allowed themselves to be tempted by the allure of something better (pride in the service of knowledge), they committed humanity's first act of civil disobedience. Some theologians believe that all of human history is but a record of man's attempt to recover his original inheritance. A just society is not simply a community in which perfect justice already stands like Mount Rushmore on display. It also applies to a society that honors the ideal of justice, and moves imperturbably, however slow and however painfully, in that one direction.

If our government ever abandons that direction, it will be because the people themselves have lost sight of that goal. I believe that, for all of its flaws, a democracy is a government OF the people, not something alien or hostile to its nature. To me, Thoreau represents a deeply cynical and mistaken view of public service. And if this view is allowed to go unchallenged, it will spread throughout the republic like a virus, until a critical mass of cynical, apathetic non-voters will hasten its demise.

5/06/2005 2:45 PM  

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