The Right of Resistance
What Should Be Done When Government Betrays Its Promises?
AUGUST 01, 2000 by JAMES BOVARD
Many politicians talk as if citizens were obliged both to revere and obey their government. But there are few things more dangerous than swallowing the notion that government is entitled to boundless obedience from the people under its power. Throughout history, governments have occasionally overstepped the bounds of their legitimate power. What should be done when government betrays its promises?
John Locke’s work Two Treatises of Government was written in the 1680s, when Englishmen were chafing under the growing tyranny of the Stuart kings. Locke wrote, “That subjects, or foreigners attempting by force on the properties of any people, may be resisted with force, is agreed on all hands. But that magistrates doing the same thing, may be resisted, hath of late been denied: as if those who had the greatest privileges and advantages by the law, had thereby a power to break those laws, by which alone they were set in a better place than their brethren.”
Locke showed how the power of a ruler must not be placed on a higher moral plateau than that of any other potential criminal: “Should a Robber break into my House, and with a Dagger at my Throat, make me seal Deeds to convey my Estate to him, would this give him any title? Just such a title by his Sword, has an unjust Conqueror, who force some into Submission. The injury and the Crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a Crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his Followers make no difference in the Offence, unless it be to aggravate it.”
No concept of sovereignty can justify extending government power beyond the bounds of political right. It is absurd to expect governments to descend into barbarism gradually, step by step—as if there were a train schedule to political hell and people could get off at any stop along the way. People forget how quickly the forms of political power can turn civilized behavior into unrestrained pillage and mass violence. Most people strolling the streets of German towns in the late 1920s would never have suspected that, within a few years, the government would launch a policy of genocide. Similarly, someone visiting Moscow in 1913 or Phnom Penh in 1969 would likely not have seen the barbarity just around the bend. Politicians rarely give formal warnings of how they intend to abuse the power they acquire.
Once ideas and principles consecrating unlimited power are accepted, it is only a matter of time until that power is used in ways that shock those who acquiesced to its expansion. As Senator John Taylor observed in 1821, “Tyranny in form is the first step towards tyranny in substance.”
Mere Parlor Talk
Discussions of political right are mere parlor talk unless citizens have a right to resist tyranny. The New Hampshire Bill of Rights, written in 1784, declared: “The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.” Yet much of the political and academic establishment shudders at even considering the right to resist.*
* See James Bovard, “Paranoia about Paranoia in American Politics,” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, August 1999, pp. 27-30.
Any discussion about the right of resistance must begin by recognizing the extent to which government is already the aggressor. As Locke wrote, “There is only one thing which gathers people for sedition, and that is oppression.”
History is replete with tyrannical governments that deserved to be destroyed by their victims. At what point can we say that a government has placed itself in a state of war with the citizenry? By what standard or measure can people know when they have a right to forcibly resist illegitimate power? In Bosnia, in Rwanda, or in other areas where mass murders have recently occurred, the citizen obviously may use as much deadly force as necessary to prevent himself and his family from being slaughtered by rampaging government forces or by murderous private mobs acting with government sanction. And in the United States, blacks clearly had a right to peacefully resist segregationist laws in the 1950s and 1960s and had a right to violently resist attacks on them by sheriffs and private citizens.
Unfortunately, there is no lucid standard by which a citizen can know precisely when he must cease obeying. And, regrettably, much of the political establishment, like the Anglican Church in the 1680s, will preach the duty of passive resistance all the way to the entrance of the political slaughterhouse.
Effective Nonviolent Action
Nonviolent action is, in most cases, a far more effective means to curb power than is violent resistance. Killing an oppressive politician usually only generates more sympathy and sanctity for the engine of coercion that he commanded. Many attempted or successful assassinations became pretexts to redouble oppression. The first necessity for peaceful reform is for people to realize how much power they have to bring government to its knees. At the height of the Vietnam War protests, fewer than 5 percent of the American public were actively protesting the war, yet those protests psychologically paralyzed the Johnson administration and played a role in the Nixon administration’s paranoia of dissent that led to Watergate.
Intelligent, targeted, decisive protests can puncture the sense of legitimacy that cossets both Leviathan’s commanders and employees. And once the government’s aura of legitimacy is shattered, the “transaction costs” of tyranny skyrocket. Each person who understands his rights and liberties is another barrier against the wrongful expansion of government power. As sixteenth-century French philosopher Etienne de la Boétie observed, “It is the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude.”
In the final analysis, the government’s sovereignty is limited by the character strength of its subjects. If the citizens have self-respect and courage—and the means to defend their rights—government abuses will be curbed. Historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing in 1832, asserted that the English in the 1500s were “beyond all doubt, a free people. They had not, indeed, the outward show of freedom; but they had the reality. They had not a good constitution—but they had that . . . which, without any constitution, keeps rulers in awe—force, and the spirit to use it.”
There may come a time when peaceful resistance becomes futile. As Locke wrote, “Men can never be secure from tyranny, if there be no means to escape it, till they are perfectly under it.” In the same way that any citizen has a right to defend himself against a mugger or a murderer, so citizens in general have a right to defend themselves against violent political predators.
As Joyce Lee Malcolm showed in her 1994 book, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right, the Second Amendment was based on recognition that people had the right to possess the means to resist government tyranny. Discussions on federal gun control measures often focus on whether specific guns serve “sporting purposes.” However, if the Founding Fathers had added a clause to the Second Amendment specifying that people will be “permitted to own guns for hunting rabbits,” the Constitution would have been overwhelmingly rejected because Americans would have been alerted to how far politicians intended to stretch their power.
The citizen’s right to resist government is directly proportionate to the amount of force government uses against the citizen. If the government generally respects the rights of the citizen, then the citizen should give the government the benefit of the doubt when it occasionally errs or exceeds its legitimate power. When abuses do occur, citizens are obliged to seek every peaceful remedy before forcibly resisting.
Respecting the Innocent
Regardless of whether Americans consider the federal government illegitimate, attacks that kill innocent people are never justified. The 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building was inexcusable, and the people who carried out the bombing deserve death sentences. Citizens have as little right to kill innocent government agents as government agents have to kill peaceful private citizens.
If statists fear popular resistance, perhaps government should violate fewer rights. The militia movement in this country became highly active only after the federal killings at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas. The fact that no federal officials have been held legally responsible for the deaths made many people presume, not surprisingly, that the government is out of control and a dire threat to their rights and safety.
Government does not have rights in itself, but only possesses such powers as are necessary to safeguard and uphold the rights of the citizens. The more power that sovereignty supposedly confers on government, the more the doctrine of sovereignty defeats the entire purpose for which government was created. When politicians stretch their power beyond reasonable bounds, it is they, not the citizens resisting political oppression, who destroy the legitimacy of the state.