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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Elon Musk’s Act of Civil Disobedience Pays Off, as California Health Officials Back Down

Musk won back a measure of freedom by peacefully asserting his rights. Will others follow his lead?

Elon Musk

Yesterday evening, Alameda County health officials backed down in their conflict with Elon Musk, reversing their shutdown order and granting provisional approval for Tesla’s Fremont, California plant to reopen.

Musk had already reopened the plant for business in defiance of the lockdown order, tweeting on Monday:

Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.

As Ars Technica reports, Alameda County Health Department officials reported coming to terms with Tesla:

In a series of tweets, they said they had reviewed Tesla’s reopening plans and “held productive discussions today with Tesla’s representatives about their safety and prevention plans.

“We have agreed that Tesla can begin to augment their Minimum Business Operations this week in preparation for possible reopening as soon as next week,” another Tuesday evening tweet said.

No law enforcement official seems prepared to punish Musk for his initial defiance of county health orders. The Associated Press reports that the sheriff of Alameda County directed questions about the issue to the Fremont police department. Fremont police said they would act at the direction of county health officials.

​As I wrote yesterday, Musk’s decision qualified as economic civil disobedience in the deeply American tradition of Henry David Thoreau:

[Musk] is disobeying an unjust law. And he is resisting non-violently. He is not seizing government buildings. He is just asserting his right to open Tesla’s private property to willing employees, and to pay them to produce cars to sell to willing buyers. And he expressly offered himself up for arrest should the government decide to invade private property and cage him for it.

It may seem sacrilegious to include an eccentric billionaire in the same tradition as such heroic figures as King and Gandhi. But I would argue that economic freedom is as worthy a cause as any. Our very lives, livelihoods, and living standards depend on production and commerce. If civil disobedience is ever justified, surely it is for the sake of providing for ourselves and our children.​

​I also pointed out that Musk’s civil disobedience against the COVID lockdown regime is a high-profile instance of a wider trend:

Every time someone goes to work, to a get-together, or to some other “non-essential” outing in spite of a social distancing dictate, risking police harassment or even jail, it is an act of civil disobedience: even if they do it quietly, without making any grand statements over Twitter or otherwise. By flouting disrespectable laws, these millions of respectable mini-outlaws are pressuring governments to roll those orders back lest their authority become an illegitimate mockery.

As pandemic panic has lessened, the devastating lockdowns have grown more unpopular, and disobedience has spread. This is very likely a big factor in politicians and bureaucrats recently softening their stances and moving toward reopening the economy and society.​

​Yesterday’s development shows how effective civil disobedience can be. Musk’s decision left government officials with three options: they could enforce their order, let the order continue to be defied, or reverse the order.

Enforcing the order—arresting a public figure over a controversial policy—would be a public-relations disaster. But letting the order be flouted, as I said, would risk delegitimizing their authority. Clearly, their best option was to back down and reverse the order.

A common assumption is that there are only two ways to bring about political change: ballots or bullets, voting or violence, democracy or revolution.

But, as Musk has demonstrated, there is a third way: civil disobedience. By peacefully defying a tyrannical order, Musk nullified and abolished it. As a result, Tesla employees are now free to earn a living for themselves and their families by producing cars for Tesla customers.

It’s true that Musk had a better chance at succeeding than an ordinary person, owing to his celebrity, clout, and wealth. But, as I pointed out, ordinary people are successfully engaging in civil disobedience—especially against the COVID lockdown regime—every day, whether they call it that or not, and it has an impact.

And now that Musk has set a high-profile precedent for economic civil disobedience, ordinary business owners and workers may become more emboldened to peacefully stand up for their right to earn a living and to live like free people.

By submitting to governmental “cower-at-home” dictates, we are surrendering our freedoms and our prosperity. It is long past time to stop cowering.

  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including (see his author archive),,, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.