Many politicians talk as if citizens were obliged both to revere and obey their government. But there are few things more dangerous than swallowing the notion that government is entitled to boundless obedience from the people under its power. Throughout history, governments have occasionally overstepped the bounds of their legitimate power. What should be done when government betrays its promises?
John Locke's work Two Treatises of Government was written in the 1680s, when Englishmen were chafing under the growing tyranny of the Stuart kings. Locke wrote, "That subjects, or foreigners attempting by force on the properties of any people, may be resisted with force, is agreed on all hands. But that magistrates doing the same thing, may be resisted, hath of late been denied: as if those who had the greatest privileges and advantages by the law, had thereby a power to break those laws, by which alone they were set in a better place than their brethren."
Locke showed how the power of a ruler must not be placed on a higher moral plateau than that of any other potential criminal: "Should a Robber break into my House, and with a Dagger at my Throat, make me seal Deeds to convey my Estate to him, would this give him any title? Just such a title by his Sword, has an unjust Conqueror, who force some into Submission. The injury and the Crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a Crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his Followers make no difference in the Offence, unless it be to aggravate it."
No concept of sovereignty can justify extending government power beyond the bounds of political right. It is absurd to expect governments to descend into barbarism gradually, step by step-as if there were a train schedule to political hell and people could get off at any stop along the way. People forget how quickly the forms of political power can turn civilized behavior into unrestrained pillage and mass violence. Most people strolling the streets of German towns in the late 1920s would never have suspected that, within a few years, the government would launch a policy of genocide. Similarly, someone visiting Moscow in 1913 or Phnom Penh in 1969 would likely not have seen the barbarity just around the bend. Politicians rarely give formal warnings of how they intend to abuse the power they acquire.
Once ideas and principles consecrating unlimited power are accepted, it is only a matter of time until that power is used in ways that shock those who acquiesced to its expansion. As Senator John Taylor observed in 1821, "Tyranny in form is the first step towards tyranny in substance."
Mere Parlor Talk
Discussions of political right are mere parlor talk unless citizens have a right to resist tyranny. The New Hampshire Bill of Rights, written in 1784, declared: "The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind." Yet much of the political and academic establishment shudders at even considering the right to resist!
Any discussion about the right of resistance must begin by recognizing the extent to which government is already the aggressor. As Locke wrote, "There is only one thing which gathers people for sedition, and that is oppression."
History is replete with tyrannical governments that deserved to be destroyed by their victims. At what point can we say that a government has placed itself in a state of war with the citizenry? By what standard or measure can people know when they have a right to forcibly resist illegitimate power? In Bosnia, in Rwanda, or in other areas where mass murders have recently occurred, the citizen obviously may use as much deadly force as necessary to prevent himself and his family from being slaughtered by rampaging government forces or by murderous private mobs acting with government sanction. And in the United States, blacks clearly had a right to peacefully resist segregationist laws in the 1950s and 1960s and had a right to violently resist attacks on them by sheriffs and private citizens. …