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On the Importance of Civil Disobedience
Sunni Maravillosa

Many people seem to have a skeptical attitude about civil disobedience, including some pro-freedom activists. Some discount its effectiveness, using the argument that "one guy doesn't matter," which I've already rebutted. Others imagine scenarios like the civil rights or nuclear energy protests, with people getting beaten and arrested, and understandably say, "Not for me, thanks." There's more to civil disobedience than these examples. It can be a highly effective tactic that will help educate individuals as well as bringing about desired change. It's also a very flexible tool that every freedom lover ought to have in his or her tool kit.

Probably the best known example of civil disobedience is Mohandas Gandhi's single-handed, unrelenting effort to bring freedom to India. His enlightenment as to Indian servitude at the hands of Britons spurred him to write, to agitate, and to take principled action to bring independence to India. He was jailed repeatedly, but remained defiant. His unrelenting advocacy of nonviolent protest brought many to his cause; his civil disobedience actions made it easy for Indians to participate, and feel empowered for it. One of the best-known actions was his walk to the sea to make salt -- an act that was illegal at the time. British authorities dared not arrest him, in fear of the protests and strikes an arrest might spark, and his example led many to make and sell salt themselves, ridding themselves of British intervention and control -- and reducing British tax revenues.

If you need more information about Gandhi's brand of activism, two great introductions are the movie Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, and the book Freedom at Midnight, which recounts the history in a dramatized yet accurate fashion. There is much pro-freedom individuals can learn from Gandhi and his methods.

Another "larger than life" example is that of the Polish shipyard workers of Gdansk. In this case, a small group of shipyard workers became dissatisfied with the ongoing empty promises given by Polish communist leaders. They organized their own union, and when it was targeted, took their ideas and movement to other laborers and ultimately, the Polish people themselves. It was a difficult struggle, and as is the case with many such challenges to the state, a minority of individuals supported the cause. But enough did, and acted on their beliefs, to crack the foundations of Poland's communist government.

There are examples from American history as well. Many people seem to forget the large-scale civil disobedience that led to the repeal of the Volsted Act, ending Prohibition. Sure, many folks didn't call it that -- they just wanted to drink alcohol -- but it was civil disobedience nonetheless. A more recent example is the homeschooling movement. Parents dissatisfied with the public and private school systems simply kept going at the "conventional wisdom" until homeschooling became an accepted choice in most states. For those early parents, the risks of "protective services" taking their children away was a very real threat, because what they were doing was seen as potentially very harmful to their children. Many of those parents weren't out to start a movement -- they simply wanted to do their best for their children, and were willing to endure a lot to accomplish that.

Civil disobedience is what began this country, too. Enough people became fed up with Britain's tyrannical rule over the colonies to begin writing -- carrying the call for liberty to others -- and taking action to resist unust laws and restrictions on actions. The Boston Tea Party is perhaps the best-known act of civil disobedience from that time, but there are many more. As with the Polish example above, those who fought for freedom in colonial times were a minority, but that didn't stop them. Many of the men we respect the most from that time put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors on the line for their principles. And they won.

The spectrum of possibilities for engaging in civil disobedience is as wide as the interested individual chooses to consider. It can be as public as a mass demonstration, or as private as a solitary, anonymous act. The choice is up to the individual. Both are important, however. Group demonstrations can be a impressive show of public support for an idea, something that has succeeded at getting the Thought Police to back down. Writing and disseminating ideas -- yours or others' -- is an invaluable way to spread pro-freedom memes that those who want to rule us would rather keep buried. The internet makes meme transmission much easier than ever before, and is a potent tool in and of itself. Even more fundamental is simply living free yourself. Refusing to give the state permission to govern you is a resounding slap in the face to the Thought Police and their dreams of power and control, and it scares them silly. I've already offered several ideas for civil disobedience activities, but here are some more to consider. Thanks to the individuals who reminded me of some of these.

  • I already suggested making your own alcohol; how about growing your own tobacco, too? By making your own, you deprive the state of significant revenues from all those "sin" taxes while thumbing your nose at its regulations.
  • Stop supporting government intrusion into medical care: check out SimpleCare and LifeSharers as two examples of market-based solutions to mostly government-created problems.
  • Pick one issue -- jury nullification, antiwar, War on drugs, etc. -- and do whatever suits your talents best to educate others about it
  • Stop getting "permission slips" from the state: drivers, pet, business, and marriage licenses are all permission slips for things that the Thought Police have no right to control.
  • Become a Simon Jester

Civil disobedience has wrought some of the greatest changes in social conditions that individuals have effected. I know many in the freedom movement are inclined to think in terms of when it'll be appropriate to "start shooting the bastards," but honestly, if it comes to that, we may have lost the fight. If we're serious about creating greater freedom, for ourselves and our progeny, then we must consider seriously every means of doing so that doesn't compromise our principles. If you're interested in reading more case studies of civil disobedience and the variety of forms it can take, I highly recommend A Force More Powerful. While not consistently pro-freedom, it is a wide-ranging, insightful examination of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest worldwide. While I'm not optimistic that all threats to freedom can be handled with these techniques, it's wise to use them as much as possible, and save the -- literally -- heavy artillery for the battles that require it.


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