Liberty Matters

Civil Disobedience and other Spontaneous Acts of Liberty

Jeff Tucker also raises an interesting point I did not address, namely, the importance of spontaneous activity of ordinary people who engage in acts of civil disobedience, such as ignoring prohibitionist drug laws and other difficult-to-enforce and much-disliked laws and regulations. (Another example is cigarette smuggling to avoid heavy state taxes.) These are cases where people's "direct action" (to use a leftist trade union term) is ahead of the intellectuals and where the latter have to play catch-up if they are to be relevant.
The problem with such "spontaneous acts of liberty" is that although people are legitimately attempting to exercise their rights to buy, sell, and consume whatever they like in a nonviolent manner, those acts are usually not linked to the broader issues involved, namely, property rights and free trade. The task of Rothbard's cadres would be to identify in an entrepreneurial manner the possible emergence of these "spontaneous acts of liberty," to give them political and intellectual support, and to make use of them to spread the broader message about liberty and the free market to those involved. The danger is that, instead of winning complete liberty, these "revolts" would be temporarily assuaged, or bought off, through state concessions, say, by partial legalization, and then brought under the normal tax and regulatory regime.
In my view, "spontaneous acts of liberty" will not be successful in the longer run unless they are linked to other factors which are required to bring about lasting change. I think we can identify four factors which can be used to put pressure on governments and vested interests to get them to consider change in a pro-liberty reaction; civil disobedience plays and has played an important part in this process. They are the following:
  1. an ideological challenge
  2. a political challenge
  3. an economic challenge
  4. an insurrectionary or civil-disobedience challenge
The two historical examples I want to look at in this context are Cobden's Anti-Corn Law League, where civil disobedience was never part of their strategy for change, yet they were able to achieve their political goals, and the abolitionist movement in the United States, where acts of civil disobedience were substantial, but where the political result of emancipation was only achieved after a bloody war.
First, Cobden's Anti-Corn Law League was a single-issue movement that did not try to link free trade to broader philosophical or political principles, such as the right of the individual to own property and dispose of it as he saw fit, the right of all property owners to vote, the role protectionism played in supporting the power of aristocratic landowners, and so on. Such linkage might have frightened off potential conservative supporters. Ideologically, the Leaguers took advantage of the spread of Smithian ideas on free trade, which were gaining ground among the classical economists and certain sectors of the bureaucracy. The Leaguers to my knowledge did not encourage people to disobey the law by engaging in the smuggling of grain in order to undermine the tariff laws and put economic pressure on protected land owners. Unlike the women's movement in the late-19th century, we do not see radical free traders chaining themselves to grain warehouses to provoke the police into arresting them and using court trials to get publicity. Instead, they focused on a peaceful propaganda campaign aimed at middle-class voters and consumers by using the high price of food for ordinary people to make its point, with effective use of images such as "the big loaf" (the result of free trade in grain) and "the  small loaf" (the result of protectionism). They were also effective at putting pressure on elected politicians through the collection of signatures. Once the League had achieved its goal of repealing the Corn Laws (gradually over a three-year period 1846-49) it wound up its political business and disappeared.
One wonders what might have happened if a clique of radical free traders had tried to form their own group to lobby for free trade by using more "direct action" than the staid and middle-class Leaguers did. Since smuggling was an ancient tradition in England because of its long coastline and the state's heavy reliance on excise taxes for funds, they could have tapped into this popular, or folk, tradition of civil disobedience to the customs officials. Note that smuggling was also very much a part of early America, as Peter Andreas has documented in Smuggler Nation (2013). [107] The danger of course, is that by becoming more threatening politically and economically, they might have alienated the more moderate and conservative supporters they needed to win repeal of the Corn Laws. Unfortunately, we will never know the result of this counterfactual speculation. On the other hand, we do have the example of the more radical Chartist movement, which was active at the same time as the Anti-Corn Law League, but its success was limited and it faded away after 1848.
My second example is the American abolitionist movement before the Civil War. Ideologically, Frederick Douglass explicitly and repeatedly linked the abolition of slavery to the broader philosophical and political principle of self-ownership and the expression of natural rights as enunciated in the Enlightenment and the Declaration of Independence. The best example of this is his marvelous and radical July 4, 1852, “Oration” to a group of ladies in Rochester, N.Y.[108] His linking of the specific (the injustice of black slavery) to the general (the principles of the Declaration of Independence) may well have worried the good Christian ladies of Rochester, along with other potential supporters of gradual emancipation. Politically it was a hard slog to get abolitionist platforms adopted by the main political parties, and abolitionists always had the stigma of being a bit too much of a fringe movement to be acceptable. In addition, the abolitionists always had to contend with strong sectional interests.
Economically, the American abolitionists did not use the British abolitionists’ strategy of putting pressure on Caribbean sugar producers by boycotting "slave sugar." Replicating this in America was difficult because the goods made by slave-labor (cotton and tobacco) were produced within the country and supported a large number of dependent shipping and manufacturing interests, whereas the British sugar producers lived in a far-flung island colony.
Acts of civil disobedience were widespread, both by the slaves themselves and by some supporters of abolitionism. Slaves owners always feared slave revolts (note Nat Turner's slave rebellion of 1831), and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 showed the increasing internal danger and economic cost of runaway slaves. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has shown how the slave owners attempted to socialize the cost of preventing escapes or capturing runaway slaves by forcing all American taxpayers to pay the expense and what a burden this was on the American economy.[109] There was also a long history of runaway slaves forming their own free "maroon societies" beyond the reach of the slave owners in Florida, Brazil, and elsewhere.[110] In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the slaves ran away to the south to join these new societies. As the 19th century wore on and routes to the south were closed off, they increasingly fled to British Canada. Supporters of the Underground Railroad participated in acts of civil disobedience by helping the slaves escape from slave America. Some libertarians like Lysander Spooner even gave support to the more radical groups that wanted to foment greater "direct action" on the part of the slaves by supplying guerrilla slave bands with arms so they could confront the slave owners directly.[111] But this strategy alienated most Americans and the consequences were harsh if the uprising failed and the white supporters were caught.
It gradually became clear that a political solution to slavery would be hard to achieve because of the strong regional forces at work in the American federation and the economic importance of slave production, which was concentrated within one sector of the country. Also, it became evident that uncoordinated acts of civil disobedience like running away or fomenting slave uprisings were either ineffectual or doomed to failure.
In retrospect, one wonders how the abolitionists might have acted differently. Perhaps a better-planned campaign which linked all four different ways power can be challenged -- ideologically, politically, economically, and by acts of civil disobedience -- was required. But this would need a lot of luck and, I would say, the existence of a group of gifted "political and ideological entrepreneurs" as well -- a rather tall order.
Gene Sharp has done much to explore the possibilities of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance.[112] Perhaps others might like to discuss this in future posts.
[107.] Peter Andreas, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[108.] Frederick Douglass, Oration, delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester. July 4th, 1852. Published by Request (Rochester: Lee, Mann and Co., 1852). On the Oration see James A. Colaiaco, Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and Nicholas Buccola, The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
[109.] Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War. Foreword by John Majewski (Chicago: Open Court, 2nd ed. 2013).
[110.] Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, edited, with a new preface, by Richard Price (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
[111.] Lysander Spooner, A Defence for Fugitive Slaves, against the Acts of Congress of February 12, 1793, and September 18, 1850 (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1850). </titles/2225>; and A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, and To the Non-Slaveholders of the South (place and publisher unknown, 1858). </titles/2229>.
[112.] Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Introduction by Thomas C. Schelling. Prepared under the auspices of Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973). Vol. 1 Power and Struggle, vol. 2 The Methods of Nonviolent Action, vol. 3 Dynamics of Nonviolent Action; Gene Sharp, Gandhi as a Political Strategist, with Essays on Ethics and Politics, Introduction by Coretta Scott King. (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1979); Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (East Boston, MA: The Albert Einstein Institution, 2002, 4th ed. 2010).