Friday, April 5, 2013

Why I'm Teaching My Son To Break the Law

The Price of FreedomWhy I'm Teaching My Son To Break the Law:
In 1858, hundreds of
residents of Oberlin and Wellington, Ohio—many of them students and
faculty at Oberlin College—surrounded Wadsworth's Hotel, in
Wellington, in which law enforcement officers and slavehunters held
a fugitive slave named John Price, under the authority of the
Fugitive Slave Act. After a brief standoff, the armed crowd stormed
the hotel and overpowered the captors. Price was freed and
transported to safety in Canada (that's a photo of some of the
rescuers in the courtyard of the Cuyahoga County Jail, below and to
the right). I know these details because my son recently borrowed
from the library
The Price of Freedom
, a book about the Oberlin-Wellington
, as the
incident is called
(PDF). My wife and I used it as a starting
point for telling our seven-year-old why we don't expect
him to obey the law—that laws and the governments that pass them
are often evil. We expect him, instead, to stand up for his rights
and those of others, and to do good, even if that means breaking
the law.
Our insistence on putting right before the law isn't a new
position. I've always liked Ralph Waldo Emerson's sentiment that
"Good men must not obey the laws too well." That's a well-known
quote, but it comes from a longer essay in which he
Republics abound in young civilians, who believe that the laws
make the city, that grave modifications of the policy and modes of
living, and employments of the population, that commerce,
education, and religion, may be voted in or out; and that any
measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed on a people, if only
you can get sufficient voices to make it a law. But the wise know
that foolish legislation is a rope of sand, which perishes in the
twisting ...
Oberlin-Wellington rescuersRope of sand the law may be,
but it can strangle unlucky people on the receiving end long before
it perishes. John Price could well have ended up with not just the
law, but a real rope, around his neck, just because he
wanted to exercise the natural freedom to which he was entitled by
birth as a sapient being.
John Price ended his life as a free man because he was willing
to defy laws that said he was nothing but the property of other
people, to be disposed of as they wished. He got a nice helping
hand in maintaining his freedom from other people who were willing
to not only defy laws that would compel them to collaborate in
Price's bondage, but to beat the hell out of government agents
charged with enforcing those laws.
Emerson would likely have approved. His son reported years later
that, upon learning that his children were writing school
compositions about building houses, he
told them
, "you must be sure to say that no house nowadays is
perfect without having a nook where a fugitive slave can be safely
hidden away."
Much influenced by Emerson, but more down to Earth, Henry David
Thoreau went to jail (however briefly) for refusing to pay tax to
support the Mexican War. In an essay now known as "Civil Disobedience," he
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.
This is the same essay in which Thoreau famously stated, "that
government is best which governs not at all." Government was not an
institution he held in high regard. He fretted that soldiers,
police, and other officials "serve the state thus, not as men
mainly, but as machines" and that "in most cases there is no free
exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they
put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones."
Ours being a more academic and less poetic age, Thoreau's
sentiments are likely to be captured these days as embodying the
divide between Lawrence Kohlberg's
stages of moral development
. Specifically, they mark the
difference between conventional thinkers who believe the law is due
obedience because somehow it defines morality, and
post-conventional thinkers who believe that higher principles take
precedence over the law.
Yeah, I prefer Emerson and Thoreau, too.
The author and sonPersonally, I would say that I love liberty
more than any other value, and I don't give a damn if my neighbors
or the state disagree. I will be free, and I'm willing to help
others be free, if they want my assistance. Screw any laws to the
contrary. I don't think social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would be
surprised at my attitude. According to him,
that's what makes libertarians tick
. And that's what my wife
and I are trying to pass on to our son.
Slavery and the Mexican War are, thankfully, dead issues in this
country, but that doesn't mean there's any shortage of
objectionable restrictions and mandates laid upon us by law and the
government. Taxes, nanny-state restrictions, business regulations,
drug laws ... All beg for defiance. The Fugitive Slave Law may no
longer command Americans to do evil, but "safety" rules would have
mental health professionals snitch on their patients
. And
there's always another military adventure, someplace, on which
politicians want to expend other people's blood and money.
I sincerely hope that my son never has to run for his freedom in
defiance of evil laws, like John Price. I also hope, at least a
little, that he never has to beat the stuffing out of police
officers, as did the residents of Oberlin and Wellington, to defend
the freedom of another. But, if he does, I want him to do so
without reservations.
If all my son does is live his life a little freer than the law
allows, then we've done some good. A few regulations ignored and
some paperwork tossed in the garbage can make the world a much
easier place in which to live. Better yet, if he sits on a jury or
two and stubbornly refuses to find any reason why he should convict
some poor mark who was hauled in for owning a forbidden firearm or
for ingesting the wrong chemicals.
Jury nullification
isn't illegal (yet), but it helps others
escape punishment for doing things that are, but ought not be. No
harm, no foul is a good rule for a juror, no matter what lawmakers
And, if he wants to go beyond that, and actively help people
defy the prohibitions and authoritarian outrages of the years to
come, he'll be cheered on by me, his mother, and perhaps even
(depending on your views on the matter) an approving audience of
spectral ancestors. Our family has
long experience with scoffing at the law
. Purveying the
forbidden or conveying the persecuted are honorable occupations,
whether done for profit or out of personal commitment.
As I think our son has already come to appreciate, making the
world freer is always right, especially when the law is wrong.