Thoreau retreated to the woods. He built his house with his own hands and became self-sufficient. He was “desirous of being a good neighbor” and he had no qualm about paying fees like highway taxes. He respected the founding fathers and the Constitution but he abhorred slavery. He agreed to go to jail rather than give up his belief that all men are free and equal. In short, Thoreau only justifies disobeying the government when one is following the dictates of one’s conscience, or natural law.
In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, the philosopher John Locke wrote that there is “a law of nature … which obliges every one” and “reason … is that law.” Both Locke and Thoreau maintained that when a government acts against natural law—when it unjustly seizes a man’s property either directly or via unjust taxes—civil disobedience is justifiable. Thoreau explicitly states that: “[The government] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.”
The protests in New York are marked by an absence of natural law, which comes from reason. Occupy Wall Street protestors are acting irrationally in attempting to overthrow the only system, namely capitalism, capable of generating the jobs and equal opportunity they claim to be fighting for.
The current administration is proposing a so-called jobs plan that will seize even more money from the rich—the “one percent” who take risks with their wealth and thereby create jobs and financial security for the “99 percent.”
Thoreau believed that “action from principle”—such as refusing to pay an unjust tax—is “essentially revolutionary.” When Thoreau refused to support slavery with his tax dollars he didn’t protest in the streets, hold up traffic or organize mass sleepovers in public parks. He didn’t ask rich people to pay more taxes so he could ride on their coattails.
Thoreau says that a single man who is courageous enough to stand up against an unjust law is infinitely more civil than a majority that merely opines about freedom: “Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already.”
Imagine if one—just one—American billionaire refused to pay the Buffet Tax if it is implemented? Or refused to pay the full 35 percent corporate income tax rate? What if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates agreed to go to jail for one night on principle? Would not this behavior, where a “selfish” minority opposes an unjust law on rational principle, be true civil disobedience?
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