Ken Silber writes,

The idea that people should be, say, lying down in front of police cars to protest hair salon regulations and the like is disproportionate, counterproductive and inane. It amounts to saying libertarian ideas aren’t compelling enough to win out in political and legal competition.

The idea of civil disobedience is that it allows a minority to confront a situation that the majority of people are passively tolerating. It allows the minority to show intensity of feelings, and it forces others in society to look at the issue and choose sides.

Another way to think of it is that there are multiple equilibria in politics, and in social norms in general.

[UPDATE] Renzo Massari offers a somewhat jargon-heavy (forgive him, his Ph.D is still fresh) elaboration on this idea. He suggests that if there is a latent majority for an idea, then civil disobedience has the potential to activate that majority.There is an equilibrium in which discrimination against blacks is legal and accepted, and there is another equilibrium in which it is not. There is an equilibrium in which homosexuals are treated as pariahs, and there is an equilibrium in which they are not.

Similarly, I would argue that there is an equilibrium in which it is acceptable to talk about health insurance mandates, Patriot Employer Acts, and the like. But maybe there is an equilibrium in which economic freedom enjoys respect. And maybe the only way to get to the second equilibrium is through civil disobedience.

The first sentence quoted above says, in effect, that the infractions on economic freedom committed by current governments are relatively minor. All in all, the equilibrium we are in is not too bad. Certainly, from my personal point of view, this is the case. My day-to-day life is fine.

But if that’s the bottom-line reason for accepting things as they are, then I go back to my point that we libertarians are reminiscent of the passive mental patients ruled by Ken Kesey’s Big Nurse.

The second sentence says, in effect, that civil disobedience is morally wrong, given that there are political and legal processes available to us if we want to overturn bad laws. If we don’t like the laws, then we should look in the mirror and ask why our political viewpoint is losing. That is where I disagree, because I think we have gotten stuck in a bad equilibrium.

The current equilibrium is reinforced by many things, including selection bias. The people who are successful at obtaining public office are people who believe in and understand power. Their comparative advantage is controlling others.

Elections, rather than representing an opportunity for “change,” are instead a massive marketing extravaganza on behalf of the status quo. They are, as I remarked in another recent post, geared not toward changing policies but instead toward achieving “quiescence” for existing policies.

My worry about civil disobedience is that it could lead to a worse equilibrium, even though it is intended to lead to a better equilibrium. To me, that is an argument for being careful about going down that path, but not an argument for ruling it out altogether.

Further discussion welcome.