Bryan Caplan  

Revolution: Two Minimal Conditions

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Here's an extremely tempting argument for violent revolution:

1. The existing government is tyrannical, as evidenced by a giant list of specific, well-documented, horrifying crimes against humanity.

2. It is our right, if not our sacred duty, to overthrow tyranny.

3. Tyrannies usually crush non-violent efforts to overthrow them.

4. Tyrannies rarely give in to isolated violent efforts to overthrow them.

5. So the only effective way to exercise our right/duty to overthrow tyranny is to band together for violent revolution.

Once you accept this basic framework, there's only one step where empirical details make a big difference: Premise #1.  As a result, opponents of revolution often wind up apologizing for demonstrable horrors, and seem like awful people. 

On reflection, however, Premise #2 is grossly overstated - for two distinct reasons.

First, overthrowing any particular tyranny often involves committing a new giant list of specific, well-documented, horrifying crimes against humanity.  The mere fact that you're fighting tyranny doesn't magically keep your hands clean.  Indeed, the rhetoric of tyranny makes it psychologically easy to rationalize whatever new crimes against humanity you end up committing.

Second, overthrowing any particular tyranny typically leads to the rise of a new tyranny.  The reasons are familiar: Tyranny arises out of a culture of contempt for human rights, so it's much easier to set up a replacement tyranny than some non-tyrannical system.

Once you see the holes in Premise #2, moreover, Premises #3 and #4 are less critical.  Perhaps non-violent revolution - or lone wolf violence - can overthrow tyranny.  But if these strategies (a) unleash the flood gates of new human rights abuses, or (b) culminate in a new tyranny, their effectiveness at overthrowing tyranny is immaterial.

These insights lead straight to two new minimal conditions for morally permissible revolution.  Namely: Fomenting revolution is wrong unless you have strong reasons to believe that (a) your revolution will not lead to big, new human rights abuses, and (b) your revolution will not replace one tyranny with another. 

Finding revolutions that run afoul of these strictures is child's play.  The Arab Spring revolutions violated them.  So did most of the movements for colonial independence - including American independence.  But the largely non-violent revolutions in the former Soviet bloc might make the cut.  What makes them special?  For starters, the focus on abolishing specific bad policies like censorship, state ownership, militarism, and emigration restrictions - rather than gleefully handing the reins of power to a new group and assuming its members will use their new-found power wisely and justly. 




COMMENTS (9 to date)
Pajser writes:

"Namely: Fomenting revolution is wrong unless you have strong reasons to believe that (a) your revolution will not lead to big, new human rights abuses, and (b) your revolution will not replace one tyranny with another. "

You demand too much. It is enough to believe that new society will be significantly better than previous one. Even if it is tyranny that abuses human rights.

SaveyourSelf writes:

"What makes them special? ...the focus on abolishing specific bad policies like censorship, state ownership, militarism, and emigration restrictions."

It sounds like you are condoning changes to the environment rather than condoning the killing of people responding to their environment. You have recognized--and stepped outside of--the cycle of violence. Which is to say: Violence begets violence as long as the incentives to commit violence persist.

jb writes:

Bryan:

Fomenting revolution is wrong unless you have strong reasons to believe that (a) your revolution will not lead to big, new human rights abuses,

and

@Pajser :

You demand too much. It is enough to believe that new society will be significantly better than previous one. Even if it is tyranny that abuses human rights.

Ahem, why even "significantly". In economic terms, isn't it enough to believe that the new society will be marginally better, as long as all costs are considered?


I mean, as a thought experiment, a society that beheads 10000 people per year, expected to last for another 100 years. There are 99 people in power. If a revolution rises up, beheads those 99 people, and then credibly promises to only behead 9999 people per year, society is better off (by exactly 1 head per 100 years)

Jon Gunnarsson writes:

@jb

Pajser's formulation does not take into account the cost of the revolution, so it is proper to demand that the expected new society will be significantly better than the old.

Moreover, and more importantly, history suggests that budding revolutionaries are likely to vastly over-estimate the goodness of the society which they will bring about. On top of that, the revolution may fail (most do) and then a lot of blood will have been shed for nothing. Thus, prudence demands that we should only favour revolutions which we believe will bring about very large improvements.

mg writes:

#2 certainly our right, but not necessarily duty.
side note: "[Submitting to] any particular tyranny typically leads to the rise of a new tyranny"

#3+4, without your added 'duty' baggage, easily lead to:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

rather old idea.

also as for motives, thought you would have liked?:

"He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose, obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners"(what a 'monstrous injustice'?)

Add a lower locally distributed tax burden, ~240 years and who knows maybe you could end up with richest nation in the world? Wow totally equitable to the arab spring revolutions!

Doly writes:

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Floccina writes:

It is almost always better to work for change from within the system.

CWuestefeld writes:
overthrowing any particular tyranny often involves committing a new giant list of specific, well-documented, horrifying crimes against humanity. The mere fact that you're fighting tyranny doesn't magically keep your hands clean.

One way or another, a government derives its power from the consent of the governed, even if that consent is forced and begrudging. Thus, the crimes of the current tyranny are on the hands of the citizens.

If the crimes of the revolution itself, plus the crimes potentially to be committed by the successor government, are lesser than that of the current tyranny, then a utilitarian morality demands that we revolt. The bottom line will be less blood on our hands, even if they're not clean.

Faze writes:

"3. Tyrannies usually crush non-violent efforts to overthrow them."

Do they? Tyrannies may crush individual acts of non-violence, but what about mass acts of non-violent protest? How often has it been tried? How thoroughly would a mass act of non-violent protest have to be crushed in order to qualify as a worse outcome than the death and destruction caused by violent revolution?

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