Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ruminations on Civil Disobedience

I took a little time the other night and read Henry David Thoreau's, Civil Disobedience.  The key insight among many that I gleaned from the essay was that a man (or woman) living in a despotic regime can only be wealthy at the expense of their honesty.  The reason being that we become so protective of our treasure, like Golum with the ring of power, that we are willing to sacrifice our conscience to maintain our financial security...knowing that a coercive government has the ability to take it away from us if we fall out of line.  In this way, an autocratic or despotic regime continues to grow in power as the people become more prosperous.  Our possessions inevitably become the source of our greatest fear. 

Now wealth is not as big an issue if the society we live in proclaims peace and good will.  If we are not threatened with loss of property for speaking our mind, the possessions do not hinder a good conscience.  This seems to be the state of affairs in previous Zion societies.
ALMA 1  “…and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength. 27. And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely. 28. And thus they did establish the affairs of the church; and thus they began to have continual peace again, notwithstanding all their persecutions. 29. And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceeding rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need-and abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of all manner of good homely cloth. 30. And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need. 31. And thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy…”
MOSES 7  "And the Lord blessed the land, and they were blessed upon the mountains, and upon the high places, and did flourish. 18. And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteoiusness; and there was no poor amond them."
While I love the spark of thought that was generated by Thoreau's premise, I was nevertheless halted by another logical conclusion that must be likewise drawn from such a line of reasoning.  What if our treasure lies not in temporal wealth, but is nevertheless still vulnerable to seizure or destruction?  In this case, I'm referring to our families and our freedom.  If we peacefully resist that which is legal, yet unjust, we run the risk of separation from our families through extended imprisonment.  Is it then "dishonest" for a man to either have a family or treasure his family above resisting injustice?  The Declaration of Independence states: 
"...all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
Sometimes, despite conscientious objection to certain government policies, we make calculations about the cost of resistance (non-violent or otherwise) and decide that the risk is not worth taking action.  Is this then "dishonest" or can it be in some instances wise and prudent?  I guess it all depends on where you draw your line in the sand.  I look at this like the functioning of a market economy.  In the Misesian tradition of individualism, value is not a fixed quantity but instead a personal preference.  When an individual decides that injustice outweighs continued inaction they will act.  When many individuals feel likewise you have the beginnings of a popular uprising.  Again from the Declaration of Independence:
"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government."  
It is also interesting that Thoreau has become a liberal hero since he largely proclaimed an anarchic state of individualism, while acknowledging the necessity of governments, citing potential loss of private property as a hindrance to civil disobedience, the very acknowledgement of which implies the right to hold and direct that private property, something liberals would prefer to redistribute according to the wisdom of an anointed intelligentsia, putting them solidly in the camp of despots, and unworthy of the obedience outlined in the 12th Article of Faith and D&C 134.
"12. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." 
"2. We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.  5. We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while preotected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments..."
A government tending towards anarchism (if such can even exist) would be travelling in the opposite direction of the centrally planned, coercively egalitarian utopias envisioned by today's liberals.
"'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."
I couldn't agree more with Thoreau here.  At the present moment I recognize, as did Thoreau, that this state is far from practical, yet it should be the ideal of every man to live in a society which abides natural laws (which are, fundamentally and naturally, God's laws), not by coercion, but voluntarily according to justice and wisdom, choosing "the better part" as a consequence of their own "mighty change of heart". 

Having stated a minor objection in Thoreau's very black and white logical sequence, it is also requisite that I express my agreement with his opinion of material wealth and express my absolute agreement with the undergirding principle of esteeming freedom and conscience above money, such as expressed here:
"The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor." 
This brings to mind Christ's likening of the rich man to a camel passing through the eye of the needle, and reminds us to place our treasure in that which does not tarnish or fade. 

I've largely focused in this article on Thoreau's treatment of wealth and freedom.  I'll probably revisit his concepts of non-violent resistance, in the context of the Book of Mormon, to highlight not only the effectiveness of the tactic, but its potential for lasting righteous outcomes as well.

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