Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience

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 also I believe— “That government is best which governs not at all”


These are the words with which the very short essay (40 pages) by Thoreau, written in 1849, begins.

In the midst of slavery and the war against Mexico, Civil Disobedience is the stream of consciousness of a man who feels alienated from the laws of the state in which he lives. The laws of the state are as far from the morality of the common man as can be; they do not want to pay taxes, support slavery, or a war against Mexico, nor be forced by the will of the majority to do what they do not want to do.

The only reason people obey the government is that it is physically stronger. But this has nothing to do with justice. In practice, people obey it, but their hearts would go in another direction, towards what is moral and just.

A life in pursuit of justice, therefore, cannot be a life in compliance with the laws of the government, as they are simply an expression of the will and dictates of the majority.

If we think about it, in fact, the law does not make people righteous. Rather, it contributes to making righteous people unrighteous, by introducing even more limitations and offenses.

Taxes

Civil disobedience for Thoreau culminates in the refusal to pay taxes.

These taxes would be nothing more than private money used to fund the war with Mexico and perpetuate slavery. When the tax collector comes to your door once a year, it's as if the state itself is standing there and saying, "Recognize me." Your individual conscience should make you outraged and refuse to submit to the state.

“I meet this American government, or its representative, the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year—no more—in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then.”


Just as the citizen should refuse to pay taxes, so should the public official resign.

Indeed, at the moment when the citizen refuses to pay taxes and the public official resigns, the revolution is complete.

“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

Democracy

As much as democracy represents progress compared to monarchy, it cannot be considered the ultimate stage of progress, the most perfect form of government. Democracy, in fact, does not inherently make a person more free, because the status of a "citizen" is deemed higher and more moral than that of an "individual," Thoreau argues.

Until individual rights are fully recognized, there will still be coercion.

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, there will be no freedom.

Democracy is neither just nor moral because it is nothing more than the actual rule of the majority over the minority. According to Thoreau, every individual is a legitimate, sufficient, and qualified majority, whose sense of justice stands above the law.


My Take Today

Thoreau is certainly not in favor of the state, but he's not a libertarian either, and some argue he wasn't an anarchist. He doesn't delve into economics, class struggle, markets, or capital.

The only class division he sees is between public officials and the poor citizens who are compelled to submit to the yoke of the state. These two classes also embody different moralities. He sees the state as immoral, while citizens would be moral and just if they followed their individual morality rather than the state's. If citizens were to adopt civil disobedience, they would become virtuous citizens.

It is said that Thoreau wasn't even an anarchist, meaning he didn't hope for a society devoid of any form of government. Instead, he relies on the idea that truth is achieved when everyone relies on their individual morality.

By trusting their own conscience, the need for government would diminish. Alternatively, there would be a need for a better government guided by higher laws.

What is clear from his message is the double standard of morality between the state and the individual, which aligns closely with libertarian principles. While the state and its officials may act in a certain way, citizens cannot, and in fact, they are compelled to do things that they would never do without the state.

It is the state's interests in enriching itself that lead to wars and perpetuate slavery, something that would probably never occur to individual citizens living in a small community.