Obedience as a Radical Act


A recent news story told of cities that are removing their cameras that photograph cars running red lights at certain intersections. The reason? Drivers are aware of such devices and, rather than run the risk of getting a ticket in the mail, they stop in time. One would think making intersections safer might be a cause for self-congratulatory celebration at city hall. Not so. By reducing red-light violations, cities have also reduced the revenues coming from the traffic tickets.

This report reminded me of another phenomenon of local policing: the use of parking meters. On first impression, one might conclude that city governments would want car owners to keep meters filled with the necessary coinage for the duration of their stay. Quite the contrary. City officials count upon time expirations on meters so that motorists can be given tickets by the battalions of meter-maids who prowl the streets in search of prey. An additional dime or quarter in a meter pales in monetary significance to a $25 parking violation. This is why most cities have made it a misdemeanor for a person to put coins in a meter for cars other than their own.

A former student of mine once made an inquiry into the revenues cities derived from parking violations. Without such monies, he concluded, most cities could not sustain their existing municipal programs. This leads to an obvious conclusion: if you would like to reduce the scope of local governmental power, keep your parking meters filled!

Decades ago, I read a most important book: Humphrey Neill’s classic The Art of Contrary Thinking. While Neill focused largely on the world of market investing, his ideas carry over into almost all fields of human endeavor. The contrariness to which he addressed himself was not simply a reactive antagonism to existing practices or policies, but a challenge to use intelligent, reasoned analysis in considering alternatives. Unlike what passes for thinking in our world, "truth" is not necessarily found either in consensus-based opinion or in middle-ground "balances" of competing views: it is to be found wherever it may reside, even if only one mind is cognizant of it.

I have long found Neill’s book a useful metaphor for extending human understanding into realms he did not contemplate. One of these areas relates to the assessment of political systems. Government schools and the mainstream media condition us to take both the purposes and the consequences of governmental decision-making at face value; to believe that the failure of the state to accomplish its professed ends represents only a failure of "leadership" or inadequate factual "intelligence." But what if there are dynamics beneath the surface of events in our world that reflect alternative intentions or outcomes?

More so than in any other area of human behavior, the world of politics is firmly and irretrievably grounded in contradictions and illusions. If you were to ask others to identify the purposes for which governments were created, you would likely get the response: "to protect our lives, liberty, and property from both domestic and foreign threats." This is an article of faith into which most of us are indoctrinated since childhood, and to suggest any other explanation is looked upon as a blasphemous social proposition.

"But what," I ask, "are among the first things governments do when they get established? Do they not insist upon the power to take your liberty (by regulating what you can/cannot do), and your property (through taxation, eminent domain, and regulations), and your life (by conscripting you into their service, and killing you should you continue to resist their demands)?"

The marketplace — not that corporate-state amalgam that so many confuse with the market — doesn’t operate well on a bedrock of contradiction. If the manufacturer of the Belchfire-88 automobile starts producing vehicles with defective transmissions, consumers will cease buying this car, despite the millions of dollars spent on glittering advertising. Unless the company is resilient enough to respond to its failures, it will go out of business.

While contradictions confuse the information base upon which marketplace transactions are conducted and, thus, impede trade, political systems thrive on them. If the police system fails to curb crime, or the government schools continue to crank out ill-educated children, most of us are disposed to giving such agencies additional monies. The motivations for state officials become quite clear: "the more we fail, the more resources we are given." Contrary to marketplace dynamics, contradictions arise between the stated incentives of government programs (e.g., to reduce crime, to improve the quality of education) and the monetary rewards that flow from the failure to accomplish the declared purposes. Like the intersection cameras now being dismantled, public expectations end up being sacrificed to the mercenary interests of the state.

Perhaps there is a lesson for libertarian-minded persons in all of this. It is both useful and necessary for critics of state power to condemn governmental policies and practices. But there is a downside to just reacting to governmental actions on an issue-by-issue basis: state officials are in a position to control both the substance and the timing of events to which critics will respond. This allows the state to manipulate — and, thus, control — its opposition.

While such ad hoc resistance is essential to efforts to restore peace and liberty in the world, it is not sufficient. As we ought to have learned from the Vietnam War experience, opposition to war is not the same thing as the fostering of peace. We will not enjoy a peaceful world just by ending the slaughter in Iraq, if the thinking and the machinery for conducting future wars remains intact. What is needed is a broader base from which to demonstrate to others — as well as to ourselves — how the functional and harmful realities of state action contradict the avowed purposes for which such programs were supposedly undertaken.

Drawing from the earlier examples, one such tactic might be — depending upon the circumstances — to foster a widespread and persistent obedience to the dictates of state authority. As valuable a tool as the ACLU is in using the courts to attack governmental programs, judicial decisions upholding a right to privacy are not what is bringing down traffic cameras. It is the fact that such devices are inadvertently — through motorists’ obedience to them — promoting traffic safety (the stated purpose by which they were sold to the public) at the expense of their actual purposes (i.e., to generate more revenue for local governments).

Many cities have ordinances making it a misdemeanor for a homeowner to fail to cut his/her grass before it reaches a stated limit on height. Someone told me of an acquaintance who let his grass grow almost to the maximum height allowed. When one of his neighbors commented on this, the property owner went into his house, brought out a yardstick to measure the grass, then commented that the grass still had two inches to grow before reaching the statutorily-defined limit. He then reportedly asked the neighbor "you don’t want me to violate the ordinance, do you?"

A friend of mine told me of the practice of one of her male friends who was subject to the Selective Service System. One of the mandates of this agency was that those subject to conscription had to keep it advised of any relocations. This young man carried a stack of pre-addressed post-cards, upon which he would write: "I am now at the Rialto Theater at 3rd and Main" and drop it in a mailbox. After leaving the theater, he would send another post-card reading: "I am now at the Bar-B-Q Rib House at 10th and Oak." How much more effective might such a widespread over-compliance be in challenging the draft than hiring a lawyer to argue a 13th Amendment case to a court of law?

Along the same lines, I was at a conference where a man spoke of the compliance problems banks had in providing the Treasury Department with the information it demanded regarding customer banking transactions. In order not to be in violation of the government requirements, the banks were over-reporting such data, a practice that inconvenienced both the banks as well as the reporting agency that was suffering an information overload. The speaker suggested that the legislation be amended to provide a more narrowly-focused definition of what was required. During the question-and-answer session, I suggested that no such amendment be made; that the banks continue to report — and, perhaps, to increase the scope — of such transactions, thus providing the government with more information than it could control. As banking customers, each of us might choose to comply with the avowed purposes of such regulations — to combat "terrorism" and "drugs," right? — by sending the Treasury Department a monthly listing of all checks we had written!

During the Reagan administration, the government mandated the taking and reporting of urine samples to test for drug usage. At the time, I raised the question: what impact might it have on this program to have each one of us mail a small bottle of our urine to the White House every day, so as to satisfy the curiosity of the president? Rather than opposing this program, it might be brought down by our daily compliance — an act of obedience!

One of the more enjoyable demonstrations of the libertarian value of being overly obedient is found in the wonderful movie Harold and Maude. For those who have not seen this film, Harold is an iconoclastic denizen of the dark side. His constant faking of suicides to get the attention of his mother finally leads her to set up a meeting with her brother — an Army general — in an effort to get Harold interested in a military career. During his conversation with the general, Harold asks if he would be able to gather some "souvenirs" while in combat, "an eye, an ear, privates" or "one of these," whereupon he presents his uncle with a shrunken head. After earlier efforts to persuade Harold to join the Army, his uncle now tells him that he believes the military is not for him.

Such examples may open the minds of some to a wider variety of creative responses to statism. Neither blind obedience nor knee-jerk reaction are qualities to be embraced by intelligent minds. It has been the combined influence of such behavior that has made the world the madhouse that it is. But when engaged in selectively and with reasoned insight, obedience can occasionally produce beneficial consequences for a free and peaceful society. In helping the state play out the unintended consequences of its contradictions, an over-zealous cooperation may cause the state to dismantle itself.