Editorial: The Joy of Civil Obedience

By William C Montgomery on April 14, 2010

The Constitution of the United States of America does NOT make America a great nation. I know this might come as a shock, but it is true. How?  I mean no offense toward our brothers and sisters south of the border, but Mexico has a constitution that is very similar to our own, yet that country is a mess. The same could be said for nearly every country in Central America. In fact, the U.S. Constitution has served as the template for the governing documents of many countries around the world, most of which have failed to develop out of the third world. So what is the answer? Is America a world power because she cheated its way to the top via slave labor? Is she great because you have a gun? Does America’s power come from the philosophies of dead white European men? No, no and no. It’s very simple. America’s success can be explained by two words: civil obedience.


I have had the pleasure of working with numerous first or second generation emigrants from South Asia. They have observed a funny thing. When driving in America they stop at stop signs, maintain their lanes, yield to other traffic, and [generally] obey speed limits. However, when they return to visit relatives on the subcontinent, they disregard all of the above, as do all of their countrymen, and follow only one rule: every man for himself.

This chaos does not end at the curb (as if they wouldn’t hesitate to drive on the sidewalk if they could make a lane of it). In India and Pakistan, they don’t think twice about paying bribes or buying black market goods. When they return to their homes in America, they resume their law abiding ways.

It is not a matter of law enforcement. These countries have their own police agencies and India in particular has an excellent legal system. But no country has enough cops to force their masses to comply with the laws if the majority of the people choose not to obey them. Numerous totalitarian societies have tried and they have all failed.

America is great because of her people’s longstanding tradition of civil obedience, meaning most of the people voluntarily comply with most of the laws most of the time. The Constitution would be nothing if its ideals were not embodied in the behavior of its citizens. Its power comes from the people, not the other way around. Because most Americans voluntarily comply with these rules for orderly society, our law enforcement is not overwhelmed and can concentrate on pursuing the sociopaths in our midst that want to be a law unto themselves.

Of course, mindless civil obedience in the face of unjust laws can yield atrocities such as slavery or The Holocaust. Thoreau, who said, “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also,” was right to encourage conscientious targeted acts of civil disobedience as a non-violent weapon to use against governmental tyranny. But as with exercising the people’s “revolutionary right [to use military arms] dismember or overthrow [a tyrannical government]” (Lincoln, First Inaugural Address), civil disobedience is fundamentally destructive to a society and therefore should never be used lightly.

Civil obedience reduces the risk for an entrepreneur to open a business and hire workers. Civil obedience stabilizes the currency by reducing theft. Civil obedience fosters scientific research, engineering, medical innovation, and art by protecting intellectual property rights.  Civil obedience even provides for a stable government that provides for the country’s common defense (i.e. there aren’t enough IRS agents to enforce all of the tax laws).

Yesterday, Robert Farago reported on a U.N. Gun Grab program in which the boys and girls in the blue hats attempt to convince countries to forswear Small Arms Light Weapons (SALW). Like most bureaucracies, the U.N. brain-trust believes that man’s inhumanity to man can be cured by the right law, policy, regulation, treaty, or constitution. (I hope that the U.N. categorizes machetes as SALWs because I hear they are wreaking havoc in Africa.)

The sad reality is that programs such as this succeed only in disarming populations that are most likely to voluntarily comply with the laws of the land, so this wrongheaded Utopian dream would only serve to further destabilize these societies as the unarmed innocents would become perpetual victims of armed criminals. The U.N. has certainly proved over and over again that it is incapable of providing protection or disarming local thugs.

If the U.N. truly wants to promote peace and protect law-abiding elements in these countries, they would be better off seeking out pockets of populations that embrace civil obedience and strengthen them – including providing them with SALWs.

Early settlers came to America for many reasons, but those who came here to freely exercise their religion left a legacy of civil behavior that has influenced all other comers. Not all of the Framers of the Constitution were pious with regard to conventional denominational Christian worship, but they all feared God; they believed that eventually they would be judged and rewarded or condemned according to their actions in this life.

This belief bred the culture of civil obedience that made America great. Furthermore, they had the wisdom to empower (i.e. arm) their like-minded countrymen so they could not fall victim to forces of tyranny or anarchy. The Constitution is an inspired document. But it would be meaningless scrawl on paper without us.

comments

  1. avatar Donal Fagan says:

    I think you find voluntary compliance where you have a prosperous middle class where most people own property, and are thus vested in the success or failure of the legal system. Based on the countries I've visited, average Canadians and Irish seem to be every bit as law-abiding as Americans. Which is to say most are, a few aren't.

    The French drive aggressively, but otherwise seem fairly law-abiding. The Spanish are very religious within a culture of machismo. They stroll up and down La Rambla like the most civilized folk in the world, but like the French, will drive into the tiniest opening on their narrow streets.

    When I visited, Spain was dealing with violence between locals and immigrant workers, and from what I read, now much of Europe is dealing with non-vested immigrants, as is the US.

    I think being vested goes for neighborhoods, too. In a community where everyone owns their home, you'll see self-imposed order. As you move down from from high-rent to low-rent, MPDUs, the projects, you see increasing disregard for property and neighbors.

    1. Ah, but you cannot have a prosperous middle class without first having a stable society and economy. Ireland is an excellent example. Their economy lagged far behind the rest of the western Europe so long as they continued to bomb and shoot at each other. Since the IRA has given up the fight, the country has blossomed as the fastest growing economy in Europe. The Irish people now share more wealth and enjoy the highest standard of living in the country's history.

      1. avatar Donal Fagan says:

        That's a chicken and egg argument. I could argue that as the Irish people grew more prosperous, and more vested, they became less inclined to support the violence and extremism of IRA. More likely is that prosperity and stability increase or decrease in concert.

        1. But they really didn't. The explosive prosperity in Ireland did not come until after the cessation of the anti-social violence. Foreign investment would not have flooded into the country as it has if the people were still rioting in the streets. At long last they got tired of seeing the world pass them by as they fought against themselves and now they are reaping the benefits of their civilized behavior.

        2. avatar Donal Fagan says:

          It wasn't that simple. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement might be seen as a start to the peace process, but was controversial on both sides. Economic policies of low corporate tax and government subsidies known as "Social Partnership" began in 1987, the same year as the Remembrance Day Bombing. In 1988 Hume and Adams held a meeting that some consider the real beginning of the peace process. The "Celtic Tiger" growth period began either in 1990, the same year the PIRA bombed the London Stock Exchange, or 1995 depending on who you read. The IRA ceasefire was in 1994, and the Good Friday Agreement supposedly ended the Troubles in 1998. But there were still the Dublin Riots as late as 2006.

        3. Donal, economic growth is never simple, but Ireland's prosperity after the 1994 IRA ceasefire is as close as you will ever see to the flipping of a light switch.

          Over the decade preceding the ceasefire unemployment in Ireland vacillated between a low of 13% and a high of 18% (mostly 15% +/- a little). After the ceasefire, the rate fell off a cliff and by 2001 it was just 4%. That occurred despite the fact that Ireland's population grew 15% from 1996 to 2005 (because people stopped emigrating – population growth was a flat line during the previous decade). In other words, the economy after 1994 created enough jobs to not only put their unemployed back to work, but to absorb the population growth.

          Irish Average Annual Rate of Real GDP Growth from 1988 through 1993 was just about 4.5%. From 1994 to 2004 it nearly doubled to 8% despite a minor market adjustment during those years ('01-'03).

        4. avatar Donal Fagan says:

          Flipping that switch took at least eight years of economic planning, and dozens of years of faltering peace attempts beforehand.

        5. Die! Dead horse, die!

          The IMF had been working with the Irish government to try and flip that switch from as long ago as the early 1970s. But all of their economic planning, guaranteed loans, tax cuts, and other manipulations floundered until the people ended the conflict. Once they did, BAM! Success.

        6. avatar Donal Fagan says:

          There was no BAM. The extremists were slowly marginalized, but there were still bombings, shootings, riots, etc. after 1994. The highest casualty bombing of the troubles was in 1998, when Celtic Tiger was in full swing.

  2. avatar Sam Rogers says:

    You have strayed from the point. Let not forget one big truth. The well written constitution is was made the USA great. It was well thought over, prepared, written, accepted, and this process and application gave the people confidence in the organizational body that prepared it. Allowing the USA to commence. The people who accepted the well written constitution, then chose to obey the rules creating civil obedience. Civil obedience to great governing principles of the constitution is what made the US great, and would make any country great. However civil obedience alone is not the answer – nor is a constitution alone the answer. For success, one must have both – They must go together. Long live the constitution and may our current leadership return to its guidelines, so that we may continue to practice civil obedience.

  3. avatar Donal Fagan says:

    Truth is stranger than fiction. Last night we had to change trains at North Street. A talkative fellow was engaging a woman MTA officer and the rest of us about light rail schedules, then the Orioles losing again, then local crime. She mentioned the fellow that was shot while buying Chinese food and I mentioned the fellow shot in his Comcast truck and the recent shooting spree in DC over a gold bracelet.

    The talkative fellow said: These people need jobs. Give them jobs and they'll be too busy to kill each other. That's what happened in Ireland.

    1. Does unemployment cause crime? Interesting question. Researchers have been trying to prove this since the 1960's when Nobel laureate Gary Becker theorized that criminals act rationally, therefore commit more crime when the economy fails them. Unfortunately the numbers don't bear this out. I'll put this on my list of topics for future editorials.

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