This is part three of a series of three posts about the role of the state and the rule of law. The previous two posts have been about the claims society makes upon us, and why we shouldn't object to them. We ought to obey the law because properly constituted law makes us more, not less, free. We ought to pay taxes on our use of collectively administered assets (such as our use of the money system) because the owners of those collectively owned assets (i.e. us collectively) are entitled to collect a fair price for the benefits we enjoy from their use, and we are better off than we would be without the exchange.
But here's the catch: it doesn't matter if you buy these arguments, because you cannot opt out of The State. You are bound by its laws whether you like it or not. I have argued that we ought to consider ourselves fortunate to have laws and taxes, but what if you don't? And what if it seems that the country you live in doesn't really adhere to these noble principles? What then?
Well, the good news is that we live in a time when virtually every government on the planet at least pretends to a legitimacy based on some sort of democratic ideal. Yes, there are a few theocracies and the occasional monarchy that claims authority based on some sort of divine right, but for the most part, even the most repressive tyrannies at least claim to represent the people. Even the Khmer Rouge called their regime "Democratic Kampuchea", and the Kim dynasty calls itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea".
To be sure, such oppressive states are just plain ol' dirty rotten liars when they say they are democratic. Mao hinted more than a bit at his true philosophy when he wrote "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun." And when dealing with raw, might-makes-right totalitarian coercion, there are really only two options: total resistance or total surrender.
But very few regimes today are quite so brazen. Nearly everyone at least claims to respect some sort of principle of justice or right beyond "do as I say or else". And that is a start, even if it is a bluff. For now.
What I want to suggest here is that the way to deal with government is to call that bluff, even if you believe it is a bluff. If your government tells you it respects your rights, then exercise them with confidence and good faith, even if you suspect they don't really want you to. Hold them to their word. Make them be the liars and the lawbreakers.
This will sound naive: do I not understand that corrupt systems will simply disregard my arguments, and lock me in jail or worse regardless of the merits of my arguments? Of course I do, but it is every bit as naive to assume that corrupt systems will be nice to you if you do everything they say. Corrupt systems are corrupt, and inherently untrustworthy; you cannot rely on them to keep their word either way. They very well might just shoot you for fun, or to make an example of you, or whatever. The fact is, when you're living in a lawless tyranny, there really is no such thing as playing it safe. Some risks can be reduced, but often at a cost of accepting increasingly oppressive conditions.
Moreover, most of the time you will not be dealing with the supreme dictator at the top, but with some lower-level functionary, and in all likelihood, that functionary will be as scared of angering the regime as you are. If the regime says it respects these rights in its citizens (whether it sincerely means it or not), then you can characterize the functionary's infringement of those rights as an act of disloyalty, at least enough to raise some doubt in the mind of your functionary and open a discussion.
In the individual instance, it won't always work, but then, what does? If he's intent on locking up up or shooting you, there really isn't a safe way to avoid that. But in the long run, in the big picture, rights do not suddenly spring into being by a single glorious armed rebellion; they take root and grow as we collectively begin to recognize, demand, and eventually assume them. The American Revolution was, to be sure, a defining moment, but it didn't happen in a vacuum; the fundamental rights which were codified in the Bill of Rights were not invented in 1776, but had already evolved and were well established within the English common law tradition, even if they were not yet uniformly respected.
In short, fake it 'til you make it. Whether or not you believe your legal system means what it says when it claims you have rights to a fair trial, to vote, and so on, if you (and others) take it at its word, and go out and exercise those rights as if they actually exist, then The Powers That Be will either have to start actually respecting them, or issue some sort of embarrassing retraction.
I often hear people despair that democracy doesn't work, that the system is too corrupt and the Powers That Be are too powerful to allow us to make any difference, and that our only hope is armed rebellion. This I reject categorically, not because I reject violence generally (although I do) but because pragmatically it almost never works, and even when it succeeds in overthrowing a corrupt regime, it will almost always replace it with another tyranny. Only if there is a deep and broad commitment to the fundamental principles of law and justice can it be otherwise, but such commitment is not brought about through violence. Violence is utterly incompatible with justice. One may, on occasion, be compelled to defend against violence with violence, but one should never be under the illusion that arguments are won that way; once the fighting stops, the questions of justice and right remain unanswered, even if the ones asking them are dead.
There are also people who feel that to cooperate with The System is to endorse it and thus become complicit in its injustices. That is a fair criticism, but an empty one, because refusing to participate in trying to improve the world is no way to keep your hands morally clean. The world we live in is the world we live in, warts and all, and we cannot absolve ourselves of its impurities by pretending we have nothing to do with them. As satisfying as the sanctimony of withdrawal can feel (and I am no stranger to such self-indulgence), it helps no one. Criticism should be constructive; if it isn't, it's merely veiled self-congratulation.
So what I am urging, then, is to engage within the system for the change you want, even (especially) if you don't have any faith in the system. Vote. Write letters to your elected representatives. Read and consider the views of people who disagree with you, and talk with them on the assumption that they'll listen and maybe even change their minds, even if you don't think they will. If you think your rights are being violated, don't be afraid to speak up. But even more importantly, make sure to speak up when you see someone else's rights being violated, because ultimately, your rights are only effective when they are respected by other people, so fostering a culture in which people habitually consider the rights of others is more effective than one in which rights are seen as solely tools of self-interest. Rights, and the rule of law generally, are matters of convention; the law only has power over people who believe in it and agree to be bound by it. We will always be vulnerable to the actions of other people, law or no, so it is in our interest for those other people to bind themselves to the law, and that is more likely to happen if we all act like we expect them to do so.