Another book that shaped my initial thoughts on government was “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau. Now I definitely disagree with Thoreau on a number of points, but I appreciate the fact that he implies a higher standard of justice than human law.
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right […] Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made agents of injustice” (Page 4).
While this quote could be taken as an argument for moral relativism (and maybe that was the intent?), I think it is helpful in noting that the law does not always equal justice and that there are higher standards (the conscience, according to Thoreau), which should enable us to critique the justice and validity of various laws.
In terms of the role of government, Thoreau practically argues “that government is best which governs least,” but ideally “that government is best which governs not at all” (Page 3). It’s unclear if Thoreau is legitimately advocating anarchy, but it seems clear that, at the least, he is advocating an extremely limited government. The more limited, the better, according to him.
Thoreau is also helpful in explaining that there is a point where citizens must be willing to resist and fight against government injustices. He writes, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? ” (Page 11). And while he would probably advocate a greater level civil disobedience than I would, I think this is an important issue to consider. Most principled individuals would say that if government did “X” or outlawed “Y,” they would have to disobey. It’s interesting, therefore, to think through where that line should be drawn and what level of injustice or tyranny would necessitate civil disobedience.
While I definitely don’t agree with Thoreau on every point, this book was helpful and formative in the process of my political ideological journey.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Thoreau’s ideology and my interpretations of his ideas. As usual, leave a comment or send me an email, if you’d like. Thanks for reading!