Thursday, January 29, 2009

Civil Disobedience and CPSIA

When Sonshine was just a couple of years old, he was doing something he shouldn't, so I told him "stop doing that or I'll give you a spanking!" Sonshine thought about it for a second, then bent over for his spanking. He figured the spanking was a small enough price to pay to not have to take the option of stopping doing it.

This is the heart of the idea of civil disobedience-- the idea that accepting the penalty under the law for noncompliance is not as bad as the evil that would be perpetuated by obeying the law. Yes, I have used the E-word, "evil"! I'll explain why later in the post.

It would have been a little thing for Rosa Parks to sit in the back of the bus, but she refused, because her sitting in the back of the bus was a contribution to the oppression of black people. Rosa Parks simply refused to make that contribution. The oppression of black people was more than just an inconvenience to black people; it was an evil. A shadow of the evil of slavery in America, but an evil nonetheless.

Henry David Thoreau, one of our own uniquely American thinkers, expressed his sentiments on civil disobedience in his 1849 essay, On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau believed, as our Founding Fathers did, that people possessed certain inalienable rights, and that gross abrogation of these rights was an evil, whether it was done by others (as in the case of slavery) or by government. He did recognize that a certain amount of minor impingement was unavoidable; he called it "friction" in the machine of government, and maintained that it was tolerable if the benefits outweighed the costs:
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. [emphasis mine]

If Henry David Thoreau knew about CPSIA, he'd be rolling over in his grave. He felt that government's proper role was to get out of the way when people are doing decent, everyday things:
Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.... Trade and commerce, if they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievious persons who put obstructions on the railroads.
CPSIA, by any stretch of the imagination, counts as one of those obstacles; Thoreau would have lain the economic train wreck it will cause squarely at the feet of the legislators, good-intentioned as they are.

On February 10 (or for those who have done XRF testing, August 10), people all over our country will have a choice to make. They can choose to comply with the CPSIA, they can choose to shut down their businesses, or they can choose to keep their businesses open in violation of the law-- in civil disobedience. Clearly the first two choices are moral-- but is the third also moral? Perhaps staying in business as best we can, in an act of civil disobedience, is also a solution? Surely it is an evil to infringe on our pursuit of happiness, so long as we are harming no one by our chosen vocation? Those makers of handmade toys and purveyors of science kits, whom did they harm? And yet great harm is being done them by their government, in the name of "the people". Are we not "the people" too? Or are only special interest groups like USPIRG "the people"?

One more bit from Thoreau:
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
Why indeed?