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Civil Disobedience, or CD, is spectacular and scary and costly and courageous and inspiring, all of the above, but as I suggested in the case of Gandhi, not necessarily effective. Still, there are some occasions when it may be useful.
CD means the deliberate flouting of a government law, usually in plain view. Some refused to register for the draft, when it was operating; they burned their draft cards while cameras rolled, and although quite a number felt obliged to flee to Canada or Sweden to escape the consequences, in the end only about a dozen were actually prosecuted, in that Vietnam Era, while over 55,000 who obeyed the call were killed. So that CD was brave, for sure--but not too dangerous, relatively speaking.
Currently a considerable number--several thousand, at least--refuse to obey what government says are its income tax laws, and so cause it a good deal of well-deserved trouble. Ed and Elaine Brown, for example, in 2007 pinned down relays of police in Plainfield, NH, for several months 24/7 by refusing to surrender after being convicted in a government kangaroo trial. Is this CD? The question is relevant, because none of these refuseniks say they are disobeying actual laws--they all believe there aren't any, and have good evidence for the belief--but all willingly pay other taxes, which are unquestionably required by law.
Some individuals practice CD against laws that happen to have impacted them in some especially aggravating way; laws requiring vehicles to be registered, drivers to be licensed, etc. Last year Russell Kanning of New Hampshire offered handouts to employees of his local IRS office, which recommended they resign their jobs on moral grounds; the fuzz ordered him to quit, but he returned for a second round and they threw him in jail; a clear case of CD. So too was Lauren Canario's brave stand in New London, CT, against the city's theft of a row of houses under its "eminent domain" laws that were eventually upheld by the US Supreme Court. More recently David Krouse of NH declined to register his vehicle and refused to pay the fine, and it was suspended; that is, he won the day. Risky, courageous, and in that case successful; but what can we say of the effectiveness of CD in general?
Not much; or at least, not yet.
Let's first suppose that some brave act of CD were copied widely. In fact, the Vietnam draft-card-burning example will serve; a large number of young men did it. Was it effective? Yes, to a degree, because it inspired others to protest the Vietnam War ever more vigorously, even when not themselves drafted, and that protest did without doubt bring the war to an eventual end. Had there been no protest, probably extra resources would have been poured in, the bombing intensified, and a victory won. Instead of a unified and surprisingly mild form of Communism governing the country today, there would have been some sort of US puppet in charge but with little, if any, more freedom.
But was that CD effective in a wider sense, of ending or even reducing government back home? Not at all. A third of a century later, it is more monstrous than ever. Okay, those protests did not even try or aim to abolish government, merely to end a war--but that's part of the problem. Why didn't they? If you want to end all wars, you have to end government. It's the only way.
So let's suppose that vast numbers of people follow the fine example of David Krouse and stop registering their cars. The roads become full of vehicles without valid plates, and State and local car tax receipts drop off a cliff. Marvelous. Then what?
The first result will be some kind of horrible police crackdown. David was lucky--he seemed to draw a sensible judge, which must be like winning a State Lottery--but that won't happen often. Next time, the CDer will pay the fine or go to jail, and if he persists and drives without current plates, he'll be left there to rot until he does, and so will all who follow his example, until the jails are full to overflowing, at which time the government will construct "temporary" concentration camps to house them. They will not allow such protest to undermine their authority, and they have enough guns and cops to enforce their will. Further: even if, incredibly, such CD did terminate the requirement to register vehicles, what then exactly? We would have a society in which roads were maintained with money stolen by taxation in some other form, such as a hike in the sales tax percentage. Unless and until we go for the jugular and terminate government altogether, they are going to continue "winning," which is to say subjecting us to their authority; and I argue that this or any other kind of CD does nothing to cause that termination. It's a classic case of trimming the branches instead of pulling out the roots.
I can see that a widespread tax strike might pull up some roots. In fact, if even a few income tax payers--say, 1%--were rather openly to refuse to file returns or pay what was demanded, that would immediately glue up the government collection machinery, so that prosecutions became non-feasible; then, others would be emboldened to follow suit and pretty soon it would all snowball and so deprive the Colossus of its financial support. Very good--but let's check the details. First, how exactly will that first 1% be persuaded to run the gauntlet? One percent is 1,500,000 people, or about 100 times the current numbers. I know of no answer to that. Second, how would even a wholly successful income tax strike prevent the Feds from stealing the same amount of money with a national sales tax? Third, even if that were somehow done (and I can visualize that it's possible), what about the rest of government--the half of Federal and some State revenue not stolen with the income tax, and the whole apparatus of local government financed by property taxes? Such CD simply won't suffice.
For all that, there are some circumstances in which CD will help in the one purpose that counts--the outright termination of all government, i.e., to achieve a free society, one in which every person is ruled only by himself. I'm currently working on a sequel to "A Vision of Liberty", which reports on the first three years following government evaporation. The new book will "chronicle" events in the five years preceding that happy day, and I hope to get it published this Summer.
The main premise of each is that during the next two decades, Americans get re-educated one at a time using TOLFA or a freedom school like it, then bring one of their friends per year to join it and resign any government job they hold. The result will be an exponential growth and an evacuation of government employees, leaving it incapable of existing. During its final five years, however, as the inevitability of its eventual demise becomes clear, government will cause all manner of mayhem in a vain attempt to prolong its existence, and that is the theme on which I'm working. It's during that period that CD would help.
CD would be feasible on a large scale at that time (but not before) because as increasing numbers of government workers quit, it will become increasingly less able to enforce its own laws. CD will therefore be "safer" to practice, and therefore more and more people will practice it. The millions who resent having to pay tax will actually stop paying it when it's clear they can do so with impunity; the millions highly dissatisfied with the quality of government schooling will pull out their children when it's clear the attendance laws are unenforceable; the millions who resent paying the serf's tribute on their own real estate will stop paying it when it's clear the local government's ability to seize their homes is melting away before their eyes, and so on. Those laws will never be repealed, so such large-scale actions will certainly be acts of civil disobedience--but they will help move along the avalanche of government disintegration when, and only when, the risk becomes slight. That is when CD will help; it won't even then be indispensable, (unless government writes some outrageous law to forbid employees resigning!) but it will bring about the collapse of government a little sooner than would otherwise take place, and so yield the biggest bang for the buck.
This is not intended to discourage--and certainly not to disrespect!--the brave few who engage in CD today, it's just an appeal to get the brain as firmly in gear as the guts, so that CD takes its proper and effective place within a rational, overall strategy to end the Age of Government altogether. Without it, even a "successful" campaign would fail, just as Gandhi's failed. He did not fail to get the British out of India (they were going, anyway) but he certainly failed to get government out of India--and that was not a failure of courage or dedication or even perhaps of tactics, but a failure of intellect: he was not bright enough to perceive what the real, root cause of poverty and discord in his country--any more than America's founders were in ours.
Hopefully, we are.