Your browser has JavaScript turned off.
You will only be able to make use of major viewing features of this page of The Self-Sovereign Individual Project if you turn JavaScript on.

A Revered Freedom Document Critique

Beyond Thoreau

Gary M. Galles recently (09/20/02) posted a summary of the ideas of Henry David Thoreau on "Resistance to Civil Government". While the quotes that are given are all excellent, it occurred to me [Paul Antonik Wakfer] while rereading them (something I first did over 20 years ago), that they are fundamentally flawed by not going far enough. Thus, Thoreau's ideas are in great need of updating and expanding to a sharpened and more consistent form, so that his message becomes clearer and stronger, and so that we do not again fall prey to the seeds of statism which are inherent, even though unintentional and subtly hidden, within the prose of one of the most thoughtful of our libertarian forbearers.

This response to Galles' piece is an attempt in that direction.

"Henry David Thoreau . . . was imprisoned for refusing to pay his poll tax as a statement of protest against slavery and what he saw as an unjust war with Mexico. After someone else paid his tax, he was released . . . ."

I had often wondered about Thoreau's response to this payment of his tax for him, but an answer appears to be given here. (Thanks to Rob M.) If the description of what occurred given at that website is accurate, then it appears that Thoreau did all that he could to continue his protest.

He strenuously objected ("was mad as the devil"). - After all someone else (his Aunt according to the above source) was, in his name, supporting a government which was still perpetrating the very things which he went to jail to protest. We can only presume that Thoreau's treatment of his Aunt thereafter reflected the disrespect which she had shown for his ideals.

He attempted to remain in jail voluntarily (he had only spent one night there), but was made to leave. - Again correct since the person who paid Thoreau's tax had violated his wishes to not support the government, and had, de facto, removed his free choice to pay or go to jail. Presumably there was no method by which Thoreau could refuse to accept a payment on his behalf, and it appears that no such method exists even today.

". . . but he gave an 1848 lecture on 'Resistance to Civil Government'--since published as 'Civil Disobedience'--to explain his action. While far less known than Walden, 'Civil Disobedience' has arguably had much farther reaching effects. It helped inspire the Danish resistance in World War II, Gandhi in India, and tax resistors and civic protestors of all types for many decades. And it still has much to say to us today, as illustrated by the following excerpts:"

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe--"that government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that is the kind of government which they will have.

So far so good.

Government is at best an expedient, but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

Here is Thoreau's first flaw. Governments are not even "at best" expedient. They are, in logic, always "inexpedient" and in everything that they do! Whether their actions appear beneficial or are clearly harmful, government actions are, by definition, not the choices of individually and dynamically evaluating free humans. Their actions are therefore always a distortion of human actions in the market place of ideas, products and services. The only way that a government action could not be a distortion of such choices is if it were strictly an advisory organization, but then it would lose all vestige of being a "government".

The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

Again Thoreau misses the major point that "people" have no right to choose any method to "execute their will" (whatever such a collective will can even mean!) if that method involved the initiation of force or fraud! But since the initiation of force or fraud is the essential attribute of government, that means that "people" have no right to form a government at all! Whether it "be abused and perverted" is irrelevant to this fundamental point. Even if it is not "abused and perverted", a government, by its very nature, can do nothing but harm.

Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.

No matter how fast any government "gets out of the way", it has distorted the future of that of which it was from the start "in the way"! This is as true for an enterprise as for an idea.

The character inherent in the American people . . .

"Character" is not something that can be "inherent" in a collective. There are only individuals who have their own individual characters. Using such collective terms as "American people" leads to illogical thinking and ultimately, to chauvinism.

. . . has done all that has been accomplished;

Neither has "the American people" or its "character" accomplished anything. All that has been accomplished has been by individuals using their own individual characters and making their own individual choices.

. . . and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.

This may have been true in Thoreau's day, but today and during the last 100 years, I fear that an enormous amount more could have been accomplished had government not been in the way of so much. The distortion of the marketplace of free choice by all the world's governments has been so enormous that it is truly not possible to assess where we might be at this time on (and off) this planet.

Trade and commerce, if they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way . . .

Perhaps lacking in economics, Thoreau did not see the enormous distortions which government was causing and the impossibility of industry to "bounce" over it. All that men could do to combat it was to make decisions that they would not have made before. He could not see, as most now can not see, that many of those decisions forced by governments would cause many things to happen which would not have, and many things which would have happened never to occur.

. . . and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed with those most mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.

But the results of their actions are what causes harm, and are by what men should consequently be judged. It matters not to me whether I am killed accidentally or murdered, I am dead just the same. My need for repair and restitution is the same whether the break in my leg is caused accidentally or intentionally by someone. Thus, the actions of any person who initiates force or fraud on another, whether in government or not, are harmful in their result, independent of the motive behind them.

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 time 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 can not be based on justice . . .

Naturally, since there should be no "rule" at all!

Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?

Only the individual can decide right and wrong. Furthermore, even after deciding, he can only implement such a decision on others by the use of rational persuasion and personal example.

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterwards.

Of course the real truth is that we should never be "subjects" or ever use our "conscience" to violate another.

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 of injustice.

As is anyone who respects, sanctions, or aids the initiation of force or fraud.

. . . most legislators . . . as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.

In "serving" either (devil or god) legislators do nothing but harm to other men whenever they legislate the initiation of force or fraud.

How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.

His message here is as true as ever!

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 inefficiency are great and unendurable.

More than that, men have the duty to themselves to resist government wherever and whenever it exists.

But when . . . oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine [government] any longer.

Government is, and can be nothing but "oppression and robbery"! In its essence, it can be nothing else.

Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it.

Much worse, if it legislates the use of force or fraud, it is doing something against it!

It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.

Worse, it is attempting to force it on others rather than persuade them with words or do it yourself.

A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

And in pursuing his own happiness he will in turn and in time contribute automatically to mine.

Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.

Such inconsistent and "useful idiots" (to use Lenin's phrase) are the greatest resource of governments everywhere and the greatest obstacle to their removal.

Unjust laws exist . . .

All laws are unjust by the definition of law!

. . . Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse.

It appears that Thoreau never conceived of the possibility of market anarchism providing all the services that are necessary to maintain order, harmony, progress and civilization.

. . . If [government injustice] is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law...What I have to do myself is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

As true today as it was then. All injustice (initiation of force or fraud) must be opposed and resisted.

A minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority.

And more, it is less likely to persuade anyone from the majority.

. . . the freest of my neighbors . . . cannot spare the protection of the existing government . . .

Today it's much worse. Government "protection" methods invite attack on us all.

. . . and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it.

Even truer today, with our big-brother governments watching everything. Still there are ways to evade government, and unless you try them to your utmost you are no better than the majority who actively support government tyranny.

But, if I deny the authority of the state when it presents its tax bill, it will soon take and waste my property and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably . . .

Still true today. But is dishonest living truly being alive? Is conformity and non-rebellion a good lesson for children?

I saw that the State was half-witted . . . and I lost all my remaining respect for it . . .

Thoreau is being inconsistent again. The intelligence of the State is irrelevant. He should never have had any respect to begin with.

. . . the state . . . is not armed with superior honesty, but with superior physical strength.

That is its essential defining mode of action and all that maintains its existence.

I was not born to be forced . . .

No one was, except by reality itself.

Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it . . .

Thoreau was much too charitable and innocent here, or maybe government employees and politicians were blinder and stupider in 1848. Today, the fact that government actions rely solely on the naked initiation of force is so clear that anyone with half a brain cannot remain associated with government unless he actually believes that pillage and plunder are morally correct. Yes, he will swear that he doesn't, but that is exactly what his actions consistently imply.

. . . all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits.

This is now worse than ever. Not only legislators (all of whose actions are essentially harmful), but far too many of all humans lack the ability to see the long-range effects of their actions.

Our legislators . . . have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people . . .

If they had such "genius" it would be better applied to the operation of market production endeavors. If government action was mere "guidance", it would not matter how inane it was. People would have no need to waste precious resources in "complaint".

. . . America would not long retain her rank among the nations.

Thoreau's misplaced collectivist chauvinism shows through again. There is no "America"! There are only 280+ million individuals living in a particular geographical area of planet earth.

The authority of government . . . to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.

Thoreau appears not to have followed this thought consistently to its conclusion. For if (as his last sentence implies) government actions must be equal to the unanimous voluntary choices all citizens, government is clearly an unnecessary waste.

Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last possible improvement in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Thoreau appears not to see that, when such has come to pass, the State will be superfluous waste.

Galles' own words again: "Modern Americans live lives considerably less simple than that of Thoreau on Walden Pond. But his insights in "Civil Disobedience" are, if anything, more important in our far more complex world, because that sheer complexity often disguises the sorts of foundational questions he considered about the defensible role for government in the lives and liberties of its citizens. And with a government whose current ubiquity would amaze and appall him, there is no doubt that Thoreau would find us further from his ideals today than in the 1840s, when he wrote it."

However, it is imperative that we realize why we are much further away from Thoreau's ideals, and those of the founding fathers, today than 150 years ago. While there is much to be gained from an examination of their thoughts and words, we must not evade the logical conclusion that the seeds of their own destruction were inherent, even though unintentional and subtly hidden, within those very thoughts that so many of us still cherish. It is only if we rethink and correct the ideas and words of our forbearers, that we can achieve true freedom in a stable form which will endure into the endless future.