Civil disobedience and revolution

Jon Henke of QandO Blog asks:

“Is there a clear, bright line between when civil obedience/disobedience is proper and when Revolution/violence directed against the State is proper?”

I confess to being something of an absolutist on this subject.

In a liberal democracy like ours civil disobedience and revolution are almost never moral or justified.

In a country like ours civil disobedience is only justified when the electoral system has itself been subverted. This was the case with respect to African Americans particularly in the South prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and, particularly, the Voting Rights Act. Their civil disobedience during that period was justified.

Revolution is never justified as long as the country remains a liberal democracy.

Imperfection does not constitute either a subversion of the electoral system or the end of liberal democracy. Impasse does not constitute either a subversion of the electoral system or the end of liberal democracy. Apathy does not constitute either a subversion of the electoral system or the end of liberal democracy. Undue influence on the part of monied interests does not constitute a sufficient subversion of the electoral system or the end of liberal democracy to justify civil disobedience or revolution. And, most especially, not getting your way does not constitute either a subversion of the system or the end of liberal democracy.

If there’s imperfection, improve on it. There will always be room for improvement. If there’s an impasse, convert voters to your side. If they’re apathetic, get them excited. If monied interests have undue influence address it through the electoral or legal system. If you’re not getting your way, convince people.

Anything else is tyranny.

I have no doubt that if the electorate were genuinely dissatisfied with the Supreme Court or the Congress that offending justices or legislators would be removed from office using legitimate (or, possibly, quasi-legitimate) legal and electoral means.

25 comments… add one

  • Revolution is never justified as long as the country remains a liberal democracy.

    What of when that liberal Democracy ceases to be a tool for individual rights?

  • In a liberal democracy there are ways and means. Dissatisfaction with the wishes of your fellow-citizen may be grounds for informing them, convincing them, or organizing them. It is not a grounds for civil disobedience, revolution, or otherwise imposing your will on other people. Even for their own good.

  • And BTW, Bithead, I don’t accept the premise of your question i.e. that the purpose of our government for example is solely to be “a tool for individual rights”. Contrariwise I think its purpose is establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

  • I agree with your definition of when civil disobediance is justified, as would most readers, I suspect. However, as the judgment of whether the system has been subverted remains an individual one, there remains no societal bright line as to which actions are acceptable, and which are not.

  • I mean something quite narrow by “subversion”, pigilito. I’m talking about situations like those that prevailed in the South up until about 40 years ago e.g. active, systematic blocking of the voting by people otherwise qualified to vote, widespread voting fraud on a systematic and nationwide basis, etc. Disaffection with things as they are doesn’t mean that the electoral system has been subverted.

    IMO demonstrations, civil disobedience, and revolution are the preferred tactics of anti-democrats everywhere. Generally a first-resort not a last-resort.

  • This is HILARIOUS. Even the Bill of Rights, if I remember correctly, gives the people the right of revolution, should the government usurp the rights of the People, and act on its own greedy agenda. And I won’t even enter a false argument, so we can agree to disagree, as I’m imagining we will. But if you think America is now living under a just and fairly-elected government, you are sniffing some goooood shit, vato.

    Count me in with Thoreau. Civil Disobedience is required any time the might of the government subverts the good of the people for the greed of a select few. Additionally, no body of Men or stack of Papers speaks for what this human has the right to do, especially in terms of expressing my universe-given understanding of my own rights and my own Justice.

    In a country like ours civil disobedience is only justified when the electoral system has itself been subverted.

    …systematic blocking of the voting by people otherwise qualified to vote, widespread voting fraud on a systematic and nationwide basis, etc.

    ?????? !

    Please see bradblog.com or just do the TINIEST bit of research on how “subverted” our electoral process has become. Damn. I thought this post was satire or something.

  • You are misinformed on nearly every count.

  • I hate being misinformed. Please inform me.

  • You wrote:

    Even the Bill of Rights, if I remember correctly, gives the people the right of revolution

    Your recollection is faulty. There’s no right of revolution in the Bill of Rights. It’s not included in the “catch-all” Ninth Amendment—that was decided 140 years ago.

    Civil Disobedience is required any time the might of the government subverts the good of the people for the greed of a select few.

    That is true except in liberal democracies. In liberal democracies there are legitimate processes for dealing with such things.

    Additionally, no body of Men or stack of Papers speaks for what this human has the right to do, especially in terms of expressing my universe-given understanding of my own rights and my own Justice.

    I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Anarchy is absurd. If it miraculously comes into existence it disappears in a flash under authoritarianism. Only the “body of Men or stack of Papers” secures your right to express your opinion (which I defend). These rights exist only within the context of a liberal civil society. In a state of nature your rights are only as strong as your right arm.  And, no matter who you are, there is always somebody bigger and tougher than you.

    Please see bradblog.com or just do the TINIEST bit of research on how “subverted” our electoral process has become.

    I read the post on the front page of bradblog.com. I don’t think it means what you think it means. I think it means that insofar as corruption exists within our electoral system its being dealt with by legitimate legal means.

    I’m also checking with fair-minded, i.e. neither redhot Democratic or Republican partisans, people whose opinions I respect on Brad Friedman’s reliability as a source.

    I also went to the trouble of checking the last week or so’s posts on the top ten left and center-left political blogs. I really made a best-faith effort.

    I checked the following:

    DailyKos
    Talking Points Memo
    Eschaton
    Crooks and Liars
    The Huffington Post
    Informed Comment
    AMERICABlog
    Hullabaloo
    Pandagon
    TalkLeft

    Not one has posted on this subject over the period. I can think of lots of reasons for this:

    I didn’t look closely enough
    They’re all misinformed
    They’re all corrupt
    They’re all in despair

    or just possibly they don’t think this is quite as serious an issue as you and Brad Friedman do. This may come as a surprise to you but I read all of those blogs every single day.

    I suspect you’re pronouncing “Guilty” based on a handful of allegations and judging an entire nation’s system on a handful of anecdotes.

    Again, you may not believe this, but I do my darnded to be as fair-minded as possible. I’m going to try and stay on top of this issue so I can be better informed.

    I live in what is undoubtedly the most corrupt city in what is probably the most corrupt state in the Union—Illinois. I’ve been an active participant in the process of administering elections here for more than 20 years. I come from a family that have been political insiders for 4 generations.

    Is there electoral corruption here? Sure. There are also prosecutions for electoral corruption here. Based on what I’ve seen and know (and I’m pretty well informed) I don’t think that electoral corruption is dispositive and I think there are many other factors that are much more influential in determining who gets elected to what. Laziness, for example.

  • No, I do think you try to be fair. And thanks for taking the time to type and explain your view.

    Sorry, I always mix up the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, which states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

    But perhaps that is the wrong argument, because as I said, I do not rely on papers other men signed long ago to decide what I believe. And I do say the entire nation is ruled by Right Arms. Always has been. There’s lots of fancy rhetoric, hypocrisy, and window dressing, but it means nothing without the guns. I do not suggest anarchy. I speak in the tradition of my people, and primiarly of the Indians from which I am descended. Nobody can decide my personal rights. Yes, this is true as my spiritual right arm, which no state or man can break, although they can do whatever they like with our bodies and our lives, as the recent innovations in American Law prove.

    I am pronouncing “Guilty” because I am not a fool. I do not take my cues from the media, from anecdote, or from blogs. Nobody needs to convince me one way or another. I know people. I know human nature enough to know what I know. I have read enough history to see the patterns I need to. And really, I do not refer to one election, but to a long history of behavior. It is quite clear what those in power do, time after time, what their agenda is, who pays for these agendas. Choose any country ruled by the powerful and rich “few,” at the expense of those who pay for it. Sometimes they have elections, sometimes they don’t bother, but in the end, the same results take place, and they are not results the People would choose, more often than not. Unless the people’s votes are stolen, or their minds.

    I dont know about Brad’s front page. I have been reading his blog for months and months. The amount of fraud and “Subverted” democracy he has gathered information on is astounding. Really, try more than the latest post. Finally, MSM is beginning to rely on him and refer to him often. Hey, what about RFK’s recent lawsuit? Come on. Do you really claim that the elections have been fair? Lord. I don’t think so, and I dont think since the days of Boss Tweed have they changed much.

    Is there electoral corruption here? Sure. There are also prosecutions for electoral corruption here. Based on what I’ve seen and know (and I’m pretty well informed) I don’t think that electoral corruption is dispositive and I think there are many other factors that are much more influential in determining who gets elected to what.

    This is all very cerebral and soothing. But even with words like “dispositive,” you really cannot obscure what a mess this nation is in. And I still say, with all the respect I can muster: if you think you are living in a free and fair democracy, you are dreaming.

    But sometimes dreams help us get through a nightmarish time. That, I can understand.

  • PS, I do appreciate that you come from a “family of political insiders for years.” It means you know a hell of a lot more than me about many political issues and events, etc. Yet, it also insures that part of your philosophy would almost certainly be invested in justifying such activities as valid. That is human nature, no?

  • Although my great-grandfather was a key member of an undoubtedly politically corrupt machine, my dad was painfully honest. And poorer than his grandfather had been. ;-) I aspire to my father’s level of honesty.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree but I promise that I’ll pursue the subject of electoral corruption more vigorously than I have.

    BTW I’ve also been a designer of voting machines. I disapprove strongly of all-electronic systems.

    Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers had never lived under a liberal democracy—they were inventing it. The system they created was a permanent institutionalized revolution—a revolution constrained within a process. That de-legitimized revolution outside the process.

    But, as I say, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • Done.

    I appreciate your aspirations. And it makes me happy to hear of your thoughts on pursuing voting honesty. I also verrrry much disagree with electronic voting machines.

    Note: I do not put a ton of stock in the whole “founding fathers” mythos…that is, that those men were pure of heart and visionary and Correct to the extent that is normally accepted. I think this view is necessary to indoctrinate the youth, as well as to reinforce many American notions. And I do agree that they surely were a very intelligent and inspired group of men in dire, world- (nation?)-shaking circumstances charged with a great responsibility, no doubt. Yet, all wealthy bankers, landowners, etc, as far as I have been told. This makeup would also definitely foreshadow too many of the trends now entrenched in our manner of life, many of which lie on opposite sides of the belief spectrum than myself.

    Back to e-voting machines, here is some more human nature for you. The question is clearly rhetorical.

    Name three reasons why a person would not want—in fact would fight strongly against—enabling voting machines to leave a “paper trail.”

    Because I can only think of one.

    Thanks for the conversation and information. I’ll be seeing you.

  • And BTW, Bithead, I don’t accept the premise of your question i.e. that the purpose of our government for example is solely to be “a tool for individual rights”. Contrariwise I think its purpose is establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

    I hasten to point up the fact that herein, you’ve just contradicted yourself, unless you’re operating under a different definityion of ‘liberty’… and perhaps that should be my question; How you define ‘liberty’… What is liberty, if not the rights of the individual?

  • I don’t see the contradiction, Bithead. I may be just being dense. Could you help me out? I’m not being sarcastic.

    The distinction I was trying to make in the bit you cited above was a distinction between “solely as a tool of individual rights” which I took to be the claim in your comment and “a tool for securing individual rights (among other functions)”.

  • Dense?
    No, or I’d not be a reader here.

    But if we’re operating under the same definition of ‘liberty’, then I guess it comes down to a question of how seriously you take the comment of the founders as regards securing it. If we take, as I do, securing liberty as a foundational goal of the revolution, then anything short of that must needs be considered a failure to that purpose.

    And a Democracy can certainly be used as a tool against the freedom of the individual. Example, Government Healthcare.

    So again, I ask the question: What of when that liberal Democracy ceases to be a tool for individual rights?

  • I take the securing of individual rights very seriously, Bithead, but I don’t think that’s the sole purpose of our government. I think that providing for the common defense and promoting domestic tranquility are important, too, for example.

    Here’s a definition of liberal democracy that I think is pretty fair:

    Liberal democracy is a form of government. It is a representative democracy where the ability of the elected representatives Ito exercise decision-making power is subject to the rule of law, and usually moderated by a constitution which emphasizes the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals and minorities, and which places constraints on the leaders and on the extent to which the will of the majority can be exercised.

    I agree with that and I’m a fan of liberal democracy. But I also think that there are other considerations and that a balance is necessary. I think that’s completely consistent with the founders—they weren’t radical individualists, they took an active role in government and, in many cases, promoted the authority of government.

    As I say, there’s a balance.

    I think we’re erring these days in concentrating so much power in the federal government. I hate the abandoning of a government of limited powers. I would like to see the principle of subsidiarity taken more seriously.

    I think there’s a point at which a liberal democracy ceases to be a liberal democracy by virtue of abandoning the securing of individual rights. But I don’t think, for example, that Kelo vs. New London constitutes a prima facie case for revolution. Unless I misunderstand your point I think that you’re suggesting it is. It certainly is a case in which the government has ceased being a tool for individual rights. I think we’re far, far from that point because we continue to have a functioning electoral system. We can organize, persuade, educate, legislate, and even remove judges by legal means if need be.

    I hope that answers your question.

    BTW this is something of a digression but I am emphatically not a fan of our current healthcare system but I’m honestly stymied. I don’t see any politically possible way to move it in the right direction. We started going down the wrong path 100 years ago and I’m afraid the error became irrevocable 40 years ago.

  • Dave, with all respect, I believe that you are confused about a very fundamental point. Before I get to that, and hopefully without taking up too much space/time, I want to talk about governmental forms. The reason for the digression is that “liberal democracy” is a vague term, and I could be misreading your meaning of the term.

    In general, there are only three types of governance (plus anarchy, the absence of governance, which so far as I can tell inevitably leads to tyranny in a short time): tyranny, democracy and republic.

    A tyranny is government by a small group of people not selected by nor answerable to public will. A tyranny is not necessarily malignant, but in practice virtually always eventually becomes so due to man’s power-seeking and inherently corruptible nature. Variant forms of tyranny include monarchies (rule by one person and advisors or courtiers he selects, with the ruler selected by familial relationship to prior ruler) in both absolute and some constitutional forms (those in which the monarch can dissolve the parliament at will, for instance, or where the parliament has no actual power); oligarchies (rule by a very small group of people not subject to popular election or recall) including theocracies (rule by priests) and juntas (rule by a military council); and dictatorships (rule by one person and his selected advisors and courtiers, with the ruler being whoever grabs and holds on to power).

    A democracy is rule with the explicit consent of citizens as a body. Variants include pure democracies (the citizens actually vote on all or most decisions, with the rule of the majority (or sometimes a supermajority) generally being absolute); representative democracies (the citizens periodically choose representatives to decide issues for them in elections of the whole body of the polis, and generally can recall those representatives by the same method); constitutional monarchies (or for that matter dictatorships) in which the parliament is not generally subject to the will of the monarch, particularly for its existence and selection; and participatory democracies (which are generally representative democracies, but in which the polis can directly impose its will by a referendum that overrides laws passed by the representatives).

    A republic is rule by representatives, where each type of representative is chosen by a different segment of the citizenry (or sometimes of the whole population), and where the actions and decisions of the representatives are constrained by charter. The ruler or rulers are not generally subject to the polis to approve or reject their decisions, nor do they necessarily serve at the pleasure of the polis once selected (though they generally do, at least indirectly). There are many variant forms, based on how powers are divided and how the different types of representatives are chosen, but I’m not aware of any commonly-used terms for the variants.

    (Before you say “federal republic”, consider that a democracy could also be federal — “federal” is merely a descriptor indicating a government organization split into multiple levels, with any given sub-government’s powers being based on which type it is.)

    The United States began its life as a republic, in which the body of citizens as a whole selected their Representatives, the legislature of each State selected its Senators, and the people selected Electors who would in turn select the President and Vice President (good idea; bad execution). However, three key governmental changes over the past hundred-and-a-few years have changed our governmental structure to a representative democracy. Direct election of Senators made both Senators and Representatives selected by the polis as a whole (though the geographic differentiation differs between the two offices’ electors); changing selection of electors from direct vote for electors to votes for a candidate who would pick electors for himself did the same for the President and Vice President; and the doctrine of the “living Constitution” removed the governing charter’s brake on the representatives’ powers.

    You use the term “liberal democracy”. In that context, you seem to mean a liberal form of representative democracy — at least, that’s the common meaning of the term. The term “liberal” essentially means “based on Enlightenment principles”, and in the US (and Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Australia), that generally means the principles of the English Enlightenment: life, liberty, and property. (In Canada and Europe, even oddly enough in Britain, the term generally applies to the principles of the French Enlightenment: liberty, equality, and brotherhood.) The English Enlightenment is very fundamentally concerned with individual Natural Law rights, and in particular the effective sovereignty of the individual except where he has, by consent to the republic’s charter, explicitly agreed to cede elements of sovereignty to the government.

    The point of a representative government is that it is much harder for such a government to tyrannize its people than it is for non-representative governments. In an explicitly liberal government, infringing on explicitly acknowledged rights (or in the case of the US, those rights deriving from Natural Law regardless of their explicit acknowledgment [see Amendment IX]) certainly constitutes a tyrannical act.

    Where you go wrong is to assume that a mechanism for preventing tyranny against individuals (liberal democracy) inherently, always and unconditionally does prevent tyranny against individuals. I assert that that assumption is incorrect: there are many instances where liberal democracies have tyrannized their people in ways both large (as in Britain effectively banning gun ownership or the US allowing the government to confiscate one person’s property for the use of another person) and small (such as the various restrictions on commercial speech in the US). That assumption leads, I think, to your comment that “civil disobedience and revolution are almost never moral or justified” because there are ways to change the system to resolve injustices.

    I believe that there is an inherent, inalienable and self-evident right — indeed, a duty — to change the government if that government becomes destructive of the ends of securing individual natural law rights. This could be by revolution, if necessary; though I agree with you that that should be rare, because less drastic methods will generally suffice to remedy even large injustices. (Well, at least for now; we seem to be becoming anesthetized by the Chinese water torture of small but growing infringements, such that most people seem quite happy to be subjects rather than citizens.)

    I believe that there is an inherent right — indeed, a duty — to resist clearly unconstitutional laws and regulations. This could be anything from refusing to comply (I don’t care what law is passed, I will endorse whatever candidates I want whenever I please) through symbolic protest (if a law (not an Amendment) banning flag desecration is passed and held constitutional, I will burn the Constitution) to large-scale civil disobedience (I would be willing to attempt to block the government from taking private property for other private people’s gain, and to get arrested in the process).

    Perhaps you would agree, and I have misinterpreted you. Certainly, I think that both courses of action are too frequently called for (and in the case of civil disobedience, too frequently attempted), and perhaps that is all you are really saying.

    As for me, the three bright lines I draw, the crossing of which would almost certainly lead me to kill government agents, are government agents trying to take my kids away from me, government agents bursting into my house in the middle of the night without first serving a warrant (how do I know they’re really government agents?), or the various infringements of my liberties cumulatively becoming so intolerable that death is preferable to continued existence under such a regime.

  • The definition of “liberal democracy” I’ve cited in the comment above yours is close enough.

    As usual, Jeff, we’re not too far apart. The point that I’m trying (obviously not too clearly) to articulate is that there is a process, process is important, and as long as the process is reasonably intact we have an obligation to follow that process before abridging the rights of our fellow citizens (that’s what civil disobedience and revolution are).

    What I’m arguing against is something that in moral and ethical theory is called conscientia ex lex, outlaw conscience, in which an individual places his own will against that of all others, typically without being properly informed. I’m not saying that characterizes anyone who’s commented here.

    I suppose that some of my thoughts on this subject are conditioned by my being the son of a lawyer who took the law very, very seriously.

  • OK, fair enough. I think the key here is that most people are taking your “almost never” to mean “under almost no circumstances” instead of “only when truly justified, as the absolute last resort.” Even with the clarification, you might still get some argument about civil disobedience, but I suspect that few would argue that revolution is a good way to settle political differences when there is any other way to do so.

    My mother-in-law (wife of a federal agent) was quite taken aback when she noted to my ten year old son the need to follow the law. His response was along the lines of, “Well, it depends. If the law is constitutional and just, then yeah, but it’s up to each person to decide that, because some laws are wrong.”

    I can’t imagine where he gets his ideas. :-)

  • And if Wrong is in the Eye of the Beholder, then we are all operating under conscientia ex lex, no?

    No. Because I do not put my will “against all others.” However, I would most certainly be hard-pressed to find a good reason to put any man’s will over mine, should it come right down to it.

  • That’s exactly it, Jeff.

    When one individual has absolute, total freedom, we call it “autocracy”. In that circumstatnce only one person is free. Under our system no one has absolute, total freedom. The usual formulation is “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at the point of my nose”.

    Our system strives, however imperfectly, to balance the competing liberty interests of individuals.

    But, yes, there are serious circumstances—you’ve given some with I’ll accept without reservation because I have some trust in you—in which rebellion is the only recourse.

    But if it’s the first recourse for everything you disagree with it’s the end of liberal democracy. You either have anarchy, which I agree is intrinsically unstable, or sufficient police power that order can be preserved. And IMO that will be the end of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy requires that most people obey the law most of the time.

  • BTW this is something of a digression but I am emphatically not a fan of our current healthcare system but I’m honestly stymied. I don’t see any politically possible way to move it in the right direction. We started going down the wrong path 100 years ago and I’m afraid the error became irrevocable 40 years ago.

    No, it’s not a digression. The observation you make liens precisely in to the point that I’m making. What happens when you get to a point where there’s no way within liberal democracy to move the issues in the proper direction; toward liberty?

    The direction that I’m trying to point you in here, is this; a liberal democracy as good as it is, cannot accomplish all ends for the reasons that you’ve stated.

    Mostly this has to do with the integrity of the people involved. I believe it was Franklin, who observe that once people figure out that they can vote themselves money out of the Federal treasury , we are doomed as a country. And, yes, I view that as an integrity issue. Who else but people without integrity take something that doesn’t belong to them?

  • Tom Perkins

    It is not a grounds for civil disobedience, revolution, or otherwise imposing your will on other people.

    It may be grounds for making it prohibitively expensive for them to impose their will on you.

    IMO demonstrations, civil disobedience, and revolution are the preferred tactics of anti-democrats everywhere.

    Democracy is no great thing, it just the best way to decide how government will go about doing what it may justly do. Limited governemnt is the great thing. Democracy is just two wolves and a sheep deciding who’s for dinner.

    It’s not included in the “catch-all” Ninth Amendment—that was decided 140 years ago.

    All that was decided 140 years ago is that the southern agricultural oligarchy would not be able to stay the biggest fish in their pond by making their pond smaller in violation of the constitution. The 2nd amendment requires that the people as individuals retain the ability to equip and organize themselves to their satisfaction as the primary military power of the nation.

    Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

  • George

    No matter where you fall on this subject, I must admit that everyone did a fantastic job exploring this subject with reasonable dispassion. I would use this blog as an example to the American people that when we apply ourselves for the purpose of productive debate, much can be learned from one another outside the rigid structure of academia. I am proud to know people such as yourselves exist and it gives me great hope that our citizen body still has the means to improve upon our system of government. Bravo!

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