Arnold Kling  

Put up with it

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Ken Silber writes,


The idea that people should be, say, lying down in front of police cars to protest hair salon regulations and the like is disproportionate, counterproductive and inane. It amounts to saying libertarian ideas aren't compelling enough to win out in political and legal competition.

The idea of civil disobedience is that it allows a minority to confront a situation that the majority of people are passively tolerating. It allows the minority to show intensity of feelings, and it forces others in society to look at the issue and choose sides.

Another way to think of it is that there are multiple equilibria in politics, and in social norms in general.

[UPDATE] Renzo Massari offers a somewhat jargon-heavy (forgive him, his Ph.D is still fresh) elaboration on this idea. He suggests that if there is a latent majority for an idea, then civil disobedience has the potential to activate that majority.

There is an equilibrium in which discrimination against blacks is legal and accepted, and there is another equilibrium in which it is not. There is an equilibrium in which homosexuals are treated as pariahs, and there is an equilibrium in which they are not.

Similarly, I would argue that there is an equilibrium in which it is acceptable to talk about health insurance mandates, Patriot Employer Acts, and the like. But maybe there is an equilibrium in which economic freedom enjoys respect. And maybe the only way to get to the second equilibrium is through civil disobedience.

The first sentence quoted above says, in effect, that the infractions on economic freedom committed by current governments are relatively minor. All in all, the equilibrium we are in is not too bad. Certainly, from my personal point of view, this is the case. My day-to-day life is fine.

But if that's the bottom-line reason for accepting things as they are, then I go back to my point that we libertarians are reminiscent of the passive mental patients ruled by Ken Kesey's Big Nurse.

The second sentence says, in effect, that civil disobedience is morally wrong, given that there are political and legal processes available to us if we want to overturn bad laws. If we don't like the laws, then we should look in the mirror and ask why our political viewpoint is losing. That is where I disagree, because I think we have gotten stuck in a bad equilibrium.

The current equilibrium is reinforced by many things, including selection bias. The people who are successful at obtaining public office are people who believe in and understand power. Their comparative advantage is controlling others.

Elections, rather than representing an opportunity for "change," are instead a massive marketing extravaganza on behalf of the status quo. They are, as I remarked in another recent post, geared not toward changing policies but instead toward achieving "quiescence" for existing policies.

My worry about civil disobedience is that it could lead to a worse equilibrium, even though it is intended to lead to a better equilibrium. To me, that is an argument for being careful about going down that path, but not an argument for ruling it out altogether.

Further discussion welcome.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/804
The author at A Stitch in Haste in a related article titled More on Libertarian Civil Disobedience writes:
    The EconLog post on why libertarians seem so willing to submit to government excesses and abuses, to which I [Tracked on February 28, 2008 8:46 PM]
COMMENTS (10 to date)
KipEsquire writes:

There is of course a third way: to sue, hopefully before "activist judges" who understand their solemn constitutional duty to thwart the tyranny of the majority.

Scoop writes:

Actually, I think civil disobedience might be an effective tactic to advance libertarian goals. Libertarians tend to see government oppression where other people see minor annoyances. libertarians might be able to change that view by forcing government agencies to seize assets and sometimes jail people for flouting minor rules. under the current equilibrium, most Americans probably don't think it's a big deal to require barbers to have a license. I doubt, however, that most Americans would react well if they saw the government seizing and unlicensed barber's shop and sending him to jail.

Arnold Kling writes:

Scoop,
If just one barber did it, he would be fined and probably forced to give up. That is why argue that we would need a support group and some thoughtful choices about the specific actions.

Troy Camplin writes:

The thing to do is to really push the issue when placed in such a situation. Open an unlicensed barber shop. When fined, refuse to pay it. Remain opened. Be prepared for what happens next, of course. Naturally, call the news media and try to make it a big deal. hire a high-profile lawyer. Of course, you will need a lot of money to do this. Also, you will need supporters willing to stand between you and the police when they do finally show up to shut you down by force and drag you away for refusing to pay the fine. And you have to make sure that your spokesperson makes a better case than does the government spokesperson.

ram writes:

Arnold: Thanks for giving me material for my first institutional blog-entry. Here is the first paragraph and the essence of it:

The way I see it, the issue behind civil disobedience is one of the transaction costs needed to coordinate the actions of a group who already agrees with an idea (or perhaps is willing to agree with it if exposed to it). It has little to do with changing the opinion of the majority (in fact, that group could already be the majority itself). Good ol'Coase, good ol'collective action.
Floccina writes:

Police are artists at selective enforcement. If they had to attempt to arrest and prosecute every person that they had evidence smoked pot the law would be overturned.

There is a large amount of civil disobedience going on the area of immigration.

How do this play into the idea?

Buzzcut writes:

Wow! This new, radical Arnold Kling is exciting! And barely a week old. Very impressive turn of events.

You know the big problem? Libertarians are too nice to protest! You need to be a certain kind of... dick? to be enamoured with civil disobedience. It is not psychologically easy, becuase you WILL be hated.

Dan Weber writes:

I'm facing the same issues with the public school system.

In theory, I could fight to make sure they protect and educate my kids. In practice, it's massively easier for me to just pull them out.

Of course, this doesn't help fix the broken system, since they still get my money. But I feel really uncomfortable using my kid as a pawn in my own civil disobedience.

TGGP writes:

Libertarians are too nice to protest! You need to be a certain kind of... dick
Since when aren't libertarians dicks? My guess is that they score substantially below average on the "agreeableness" factor in personality tests.

Tom G writes:

I've read this and related discussion (including the Reason mag link).
To anyone worried about how people find employment after jail time for CD, consider that the free market can solve most problems. What about a private, subscriber, probably encrypted database?
You'd join before or after any jail time, and include your employment skills.
It would be VERY similar to employment agencies we already have, with the addition of sympathy to and respect for minarchist/anarchist views, and would offer employers who are also of like mindset an additional resource of people. The employers would see what your sentence was for and they (hopefully) would be a lot less likely to throw your CV into the circular file.
This is just a basic idea, needs lots of fleshing out, and don't assume there would be only one such database. It IS the free market after all.

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