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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Insuring John Galt?

Insuring disobedience could take down the regulatory state

Cato’s latest podcast is an interview with Charles Murray on his new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty without Permission. You can watch the podcast below or download the audio here. Be forewarned: if you’re like me, you’ll be Kindle-ing the book before the interview ends.

The word “provocative” is applied to far too many books these days, and often to books that should instead be called “wacky.” Murray’s thesis fully earns the former adjective, and perhaps a touch of the second–and I write that as high praise.

He argues that American government today is so far divorced from the nation’s founding principles of limited government and individual liberty that it can’t be returned to those principles through normal political action. No presidential administration, congressional turnover, or set of SCOTUS appointments will restore the Commerce and General Welfare clauses.

Thus, he writes, supporters of liberty should try to effect change through carefully chosen but broadly adopted acts of civil disobedience against publicly unpopular regulations. Some examples that come to my mind: people could become part-time Uber drivers, or cash businesses could routinely make deposits of $9,999, or parents could include cupcakes in their schoolchildren’s packed lunches.

Of course, public officials will try to punish the participants.

But that’s good, Murray argues, for two reasons: First, it’ll consume a lot of the regulators’ surprisingly scarce resources in order to punish even a small percentage of the participants. Second, it opens the way for challenging the regulations in court–where, in recent years, they’ve had trouble surviving judicial scrutiny.

To fund those challenges and financially protect participants, he proposes the participants create a legal defense and compensation fund prior to any disobedience. In essence, the fund would be an insurer with a muscular legal wing, reducing regulatory violations to mere insurable events.

This last bit is what gives Murray’s book a touch of wackiness – but then, perhaps not. If the targets of civil disobedience are well chosen and participation is large, the participants as a group could benefit financially even though they’d pay the “insurance premium.”

I’m interested in reading parts of the book that Murray briefly mentions in the interview: how to select “stupid and pointless” regulations that would be good targets of civil disobedience, how exactly the insurance fund would operate, how to rally public opinion and attract support from non-libertarians, and perhaps most importantly, why does he think the general public–and not just libertarians–are tired of being hassled by regulators and government officials.

Could Murray’s idea spark a large wave of civil disobedience? Perhaps – with the help of insurance.

Thomas A. Firey is managing editor of Regulation magazine at the Cato Institute’s magazine, where this idea first appeared.

  • Thomas A. Firey is a Maryland Public Policy Institute senior fellow, and also is managing editor of Regulation magazine, the Cato Institute's quarterly review of business in government.