Why I'm Teaching My Son To Break the Law

Making the world freer is always right, especially when the law is wrong

The Price of FreedomWalker BooksIn 1858, hundreds of residents of Oberlin and Wellington, Ohio—many of them students and faculty at Oberlin College—surrounded Wadsworth's Hotel, in Wellington, in which law enforcement officers and slavehunters held a fugitive slave named John Price, under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act. After a brief standoff, the armed crowd stormed the hotel and overpowered the captors. Price was freed and transported to safety in Canada (that's a photo of some of the rescuers in the courtyard of the Cuyahoga County Jail, below and to the right). I know these details because my son recently borrowed from the library The Price of Freedom, a book about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, as the incident is called (PDF). My wife and I used it as a starting point for telling our seven-year-old why we don't expect him to obey the law—that laws and the governments that pass them are often evil. We expect him, instead, to stand up for his rights and those of others, and to do good, even if that means breaking the law.

Our insistence on putting right before the law isn't a new position. I've always liked Ralph Waldo Emerson's sentiment that "Good men must not obey the laws too well." That's a well-known quote, but it comes from a longer essay in which he wrote:

Republics abound in young civilians, who believe that the laws make the city, that grave modifications of the policy and modes of living, and employments of the population, that commerce, education, and religion, may be voted in or out; and that any measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed on a people, if only you can get sufficient voices to make it a law. But the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand, which perishes in the twisting ...

Oberlin-Wellington rescuersOhio Historical SocietyRope of sand the law may be, but it can strangle unlucky people on the receiving end long before it perishes. John Price could well have ended up with not just the law, but a real rope, around his neck, just because he wanted to exercise the natural freedom to which he was entitled by birth as a sapient being.

John Price ended his life as a free man because he was willing to defy laws that said he was nothing but the property of other people, to be disposed of as they wished. He got a nice helping hand in maintaining his freedom from other people who were willing to not only defy laws that would compel them to collaborate in Price's bondage, but to beat the hell out of government agents charged with enforcing those laws.

Emerson would likely have approved. His son reported years later that, upon learning that his children were writing school compositions about building houses, he told them, "you must be sure to say that no house nowadays is perfect without having a nook where a fugitive slave can be safely hidden away."

Much influenced by Emerson, but more down to Earth, Henry David Thoreau went to jail (however briefly) for refusing to pay tax to support the Mexican War. In an essay now known as "Civil Disobedience," he wrote:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.

This is the same essay in which Thoreau famously stated, "that government is best which governs not at all." Government was not an institution he held in high regard. He fretted that soldiers, police, and other officials "serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines" and that "in most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones."

Ours being a more academic and less poetic age, Thoreau's sentiments are likely to be captured these days as embodying the divide between Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Specifically, they mark the difference between conventional thinkers who believe the law is due obedience because somehow it defines morality, and post-conventional thinkers who believe that higher principles take precedence over the law.

Yeah, I prefer Emerson and Thoreau, too.

The author and sonWendy TuccillePersonally, I would say that I love liberty more than any other value, and I don't give a damn if my neighbors or the state disagree. I will be free, and I'm willing to help others be free, if they want my assistance. Screw any laws to the contrary. I don't think social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would be surprised at my attitude. According to him, that's what makes libertarians tick. And that's what my wife and I are trying to pass on to our son.

Slavery and the Mexican War are, thankfully, dead issues in this country, but that doesn't mean there's any shortage of objectionable restrictions and mandates laid upon us by law and the government. Taxes, nanny-state restrictions, business regulations, drug laws ... All beg for defiance. The Fugitive Slave Law may no longer command Americans to do evil, but "safety" rules would have physicians and mental health professionals snitch on their patients. And there's always another military adventure, someplace, on which politicians want to expend other people's blood and money.

I sincerely hope that my son never has to run for his freedom in defiance of evil laws, like John Price. I also hope, at least a little, that he never has to beat the stuffing out of police officers, as did the residents of Oberlin and Wellington, to defend the freedom of another. But, if he does, I want him to do so without reservations.

If all my son does is live his life a little freer than the law allows, then we've done some good. A few regulations ignored and some paperwork tossed in the garbage can make the world a much easier place in which to live. Better yet, if he sits on a jury or two and stubbornly refuses to find any reason why he should convict some poor mark who was hauled in for owning a forbidden firearm or for ingesting the wrong chemicals. Jury nullification isn't illegal (yet), but it helps others escape punishment for doing things that are, but ought not be. No harm, no foul is a good rule for a juror, no matter what lawmakers say.

And, if he wants to go beyond that, and actively help people defy the prohibitions and authoritarian outrages of the years to come, he'll be cheered on by me, his mother, and perhaps even (depending on your views on the matter) an approving audience of spectral ancestors. Our family has long experience with scoffing at the law. Purveying the forbidden or conveying the persecuted are honorable occupations, whether done for profit or out of personal commitment.

As I think our son has already come to appreciate, making the world freer is always right, especially when the law is wrong.

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  • Restoras||

    Child Protective Service agents on thier way to the Tuccille residence!

  • Zombie Jimbo||

    What? For making that poor kid wear that hat?

    I will look for the book and share it with the kids.

  • fish||

    What? For making that poor kid wear that hat?

    Whoh....you wear a hat like that you get a free bowl of soup......but on you it looks good.

    /Dangerfield

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  • Almanian!||

    ROADZ. SOMALIA. IF YOU'VE DONE NOTHING WRONG! FOR OUR OWN GOOD. CHAOS. ANARCHY.

    Also, "a sapient being" - oh, so you can't just call him a MAN? RACIST!

    /derp

  • Almanian!||

    PS That was outstanding work, JD. THanks!

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Hell, yes, J.D.! Huzzah!

  • Raston Bot||

    Well said, and timely considering that CPS stuff in Florida/Louisiana.

  • Hagbard||

    Obey just enough law to stay out of jail. Anything more is syncophancy.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    sycophancy.

  • Mr Whipple||

    "When freedom is illegal, criminals make laws and outlaws make freedom"

    - Claire Wolfe

  • Best Of All Possible Tyrannies||

    Thank you, sir! I just found some interesting reading.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I'm not sure I would have worn that sportcoat with that shirt, but other than that, bravo!

  • ||

    It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

    What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.

    In the first place, it erases from everyone's conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.

    No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

    "The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing.

    There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are "just" because law makes them so.

    Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them."

    - Bastiat

  • rickl7069||

    Mostly agree, but "These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them."
    They most definitely are NOT. Honoring your personal moral code is a much, much greater utility than honoring some immoral law.

  • ||

    In the future, the government will use CPS to supress dissent, by seizing the children of anyone who breaks the law, or exhibits incorrect anti-government behavior around them.

    It's unfortunate that the constitution does not include any protection on parents rights to keep their children. You have a right to bear arms. You have a right to say whatever you want. You have the right not to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

    But they can take your children away, and there's no constitutional prohibition on that, only statutory protections that shift depending on the mores of society. Drug use frowned upon? Drug users lose their kids. Homosexuality bad? Gays have their kids taken away (no doubt it has happened). Nudist? Belong to a wierd religious cult? Practice polygamy? Keep guns around the house? Let your kids walk to school alone? Let them sit in the front seat of the car? Let them drink Kambucha? Any of those things could get a case worker on you threatening to seize custody. It all depends on whatever people around you at the moment happens to think is bad for children.

  • fish||

    Sounds like CPS workers will be in short supply in the future. Good to know.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

  • rickl7069||

    Don't get me started on CPS, where, in their care, a child is at twice the risk of death and many times the risk of molestation.
    I believe our founders did not state the right to your children in the Constitution because it is such an obvious right and, back then, anyone that came to take someone's child, for any reason, would have been promptly shot.
    I, for one, would LOVE to see more government agents stopped with a firearm, they should be afraid to interfere in anyone's life. I believe that fear is the only thing that keeps a government in check, whole point of the second amendment, and our problem today is that our government is not afraid of the people.

  • Johnathan Reale||

    Beautiful. Emailing this to my 12 year old son right now. Plus I appreciate the Oberlin connection (OC '94).

  • nobody||

    Me too (OC '04). You going to the reunion in May?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Nice knowin' ya, J D.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    It's unfortunate that the constitution does not include any protection on parents rights to keep their children.

    There are no specific guarantees of the right to breathe, or eat, either. I wonder why that is.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    After a brief standoff, the armed crowd stormed the hotel and overpowered the captors.

    OMG lawlessness and vigilantism!

    This is why the civilian population must be disarmed.

  • mr lizard||

    Ya pretty much. The Government takeaway from that incident was to ensure they were never out-gunned again. It's why cops get paranoid when people start gathering around their beat-downs.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    This parallels the evolution of the Police Unions' expansion of protections for abusive police officers after the Rodney King incident.

    We thought things might get better [holding police criminally liable and responsible for violent abuses] but they got worse ["qualified immunity"].

  • Being Waterboarded||

    Damn straight, JD. My kids get similar advice.

    In a similar vein, I refuse to say the pledge of allegiance because one cannot have two masters. You are either allied with a moral code or you can be allied with your flag/government/law, but they are often at odds. I choose the former. When conservative family members find out that I won't say the pledge of allegiance, they cannot imagine why.

  • prolefeed||

    Say half of it is a blatant lie, and most of the rest is obnoxiously wrong.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Shit, tell them that George W Bush and Barack Obama are both war criminals and you don't roll that way.

  • GroundTruth||

    This one is actually easy for me: I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, and the flag for which it stand, one nation, with Liberty and Justice for all. Just leave out the silly parts that claim that it can't be broken up (it will be, eventually) or under God (a mythical being I have yet to meet). Leave in the wonderful hopes of the country called the United States. Even Jefferson had clay feet, but he tried... that's all you can ask.

  • BAL1953||

    I have not met you yet. Does this mean you are a mythical being?

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  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Fedoras: Limit one per group.

  • Tony||

    But you want government to strictly obey the law. How can it do that without enforcing even its dumb laws when it's required to? Or should government too be capricious in choosing which laws to obey? You might use the word judicious when applying it to your choices, but judiciousness like "rights" and "morality" is in the eye of the beholder.

    The transcendentalists contributed elegantly to the philosophy of individualism (how jarring it is to have their words juxtaposed with awful libertarian dreck). It's in American DNA. But as all those with complex personalities, so is its opposite, an appreciation for collectivism. It has to be a part of the reality of our society's worthiness. Unless you want to jettison much of the progress of the last century (including, hugely, relative global peace, which has everything to do with collective action).

    It would be platitudinous to say that this tension is healthy and productive, and maybe it used to be. But one side of this debate has become completely shouted down by radical antigovernment lunatics, ones who think freedom means armed vigilante mini-militias at the National Press Club. There is such a thing as going too far to the right, and it is at least as ugly as going too far to the left.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Ejecting everything progressivism has done would be swell.

  • Tony||

    Which is why there are no women or minorities in your movement.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Progressivism is associated with shit like slavery, eugenics, Jim Crow, protectionism, evicting Seneca Village, agricultural price fixing...

  • Tony||

    I just switched TV programming providers and watched The Blaze, which I now get, for 10 minutes. I thought my head would explode, and had the strange urge to buy survival gear. What I absolutely cannot figure out is how you Beckians live with this bullshit polluting your mind. Are you like always frightened and angry, or what?

  • ||

    That's the way! When faced with the moral depravity of the shit you support, spout off incoherent platitudes about Glenn Beck and teh TEEE PARTEEEE

    Are you like always frightened and angry, or what?

    A perplexing question coming from someone who believes in the total state as a means of alleviating his personal anxieties and frustrations.

  • ||

    C'mon, PM, give Tony a break, will ya? He was just projecting his own flaws and neuroses. Again.

  • MamaLiberty||

    Oh yeah? Seems you are not looking hard enough. Not that I think either the "right" or "left" or any political organization has any solution to our current insanity.

    I own my life and body, and I am the only one who is responsible for that life.

    No human being has the right, under any circumstance, to initiate force against another human being, nor to delegate that initiation of force.

    And, by the very same logic, each person has an absolute natural right to life, self ownership and self defense - in voluntary association for mutual goals.

    There really wouldn't be anything to argue about if we all simply minded our own business and stopped trying to control the lives and property of other people.

  • ||

    It's not a 'movement' and in any event since when are the strength of ideas and thoughts attached to a "group" or "gender?"

    That's a progressive perspective. Something is only 'valid' if said group is part of it.

  • StackOfCoins||

    I'll quote from The Virtue of Selfishness, under The Nature of Government:

    "Under a proper social system, a private individual is legally free to take any action he pleases (so long as he does not violate the rights of others), while a government official is bound by law in his every official act. A private individual may do anything that is not legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted" (Bolding mine, italics original).

    The problem is that too many laws are bad laws, ie drug laws; conversely too many government agents use their badges and laminates to justify every action. When this sort of injustice becomes commonplace, the reflex to defend oneself via force (mini-militias as you say) is natural. Which is why a limited government is so important: the more shit they do, the more there is to disagree with.

    I'm not terribly eloquent but I hope you can see the point I'm making here.

  • Tony||

    The "so long as he does not violate..." caveat is all-important when we're talking about the role of government. It's the point of the existence of government. Libertarians struggle to understand violations of rights that aren't the most obvious ones, and there's the inherent contradiction of placing government in charge of the absolute most important things--but no further, because it's bad!

    My entire point is that one side of mainstream political dialogue is so radical and dogmatic that it treats every minor healthcare policy change as a casus belli. I don't want those people deciding when it's time to start shooting--no matter how much a serious body count would benefit my side, and not theirs, in the eyes of politics and history.

  • ||

    Libertarians struggle to understand violations of rights that aren't the most obvious ones

    Not so much. They just disagree with you on what constitutes a "right", particularly because they don't recognize the legitimacy of positive rights. It appears a contradiction to you only because you are either too obtuse or too stupid to understand the difference.

  • Jim in Denver||

    For fuck's sake.

    A right is something you are born with, anything that is a part of you or born of you. If it requires that you take it from another, either by force or barter it is not a right. If government must coerce another to provide it to you, it is not a right.

  • GroundTruth||

    The bolded is essentially the libertarian proposition, as well as the theory behind the US Constitution... hardly novel constructs around here.

    But worth restating just the same.

  • megamucho||

    But one side of this debate has become completely shouted down by radical antigovernment lunatics, ones who think freedom means armed vigilante mini-militias at the National Press Club.

    Maybe the debate is shouted down because every last interaction by those sharing your viewpoint is always framed with ad hominem attacks such as yours.

  • Tony||

    Sometimes your political opponents really are dangerous radicals.

  • ||

    Sometimes your political opponents really are dangerous radicals.

    QED

  • ||

    The biggest radicals today are static left-wing progressive liberals.

  • ||

    Tony:

    Sometimes your political opponents really are dangerous radicals.

    Since government intervention is usually laid on a foundation of violence, who's more radical? They people who want to be left alone? Or the people who want to wave the guns of the state around and threatening jail time for anyone who doesn't go along with any damn desire they have?

  • BigT||

    (including, hugely, relative global peace, which has everything to do with collective action).

    Sure, collectivist/authoritarian states did not start WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam or anything else. They are like Quakers.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    That doesn't excuse support for War Criminals in the oval office -- unless you are a Neo-Nazi.

  • ||

    Tony:

    relative global peace

    Relative global peace has more to do with nuclear arms proliferation across Europe and Asia than anything else. There has never been an armed conflict between two nuclear powers; everyone's worried that, even if there's a conventional war between nuclear powers, the losing side won't accept defeat without going nuclear against its opponent.

    Is that a big double plus good contribution of collectivism?

  • Otis B. Driftwood||

    Well done, Tuccille; brilliant piece.

  • Lyle||

    The Mexican War expanded liberty. Huzzah!

  • Steve G||

    Wow, my 6 yr old is into star wars and pirates. I gotta get busy

  • Barnstormer||

    "As I think our son has already come to appreciate, making the world freer is always right, especially when the law is wrong."

    You're effing kidding yourself to think that a seven-year-old comprehends even a tiny fraction of this philosophy.

  • trshmnstr||

    depends on the kid. I think most seven-year-olds would think "cool! I can break the law sometimes!" and then forget about it.

    There may be the occasional child that thinks about it more deeply.

  • ||

    Even a tiny fraction? People don't just transform, at a certain age, into adults with a fully articulated philosophy. Children learn from their experience, and watching those around them. Even if a child can't fully grasp the philosophy, they can learn it through experience and demonstration, as they grow up.

  • Gordilocks||

    This is a most excellent piece, sir. I'm sharing this one far and wide, and especially to my fiance.

    Probably one of the best opinion pieces on reason in recent memory.

  • Church goer||

    If you remove the personal responsibility that is indicated in this article - and there is a lot, you are left with something that could easily be shouted in the university echo chambers.

  • BravoSix420||

    Agreed government regulations are as evil as slavery. Nanny-state regulations saying I cant dump toxins into the drinking water is tyranny.

  • ||

    No, tyranny is being able to dump whatever you want wherever you want, as long as it fits the regulations of the government. If you don't like it, though, you can vote, and wait until that changes something.

  • Go_Cats||

    The rights fairy hadn't sprinkled her magic dust on those agents of government.

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  • BravoSix420||

    Wasn't slavery supported by the freedom-loving states rights crowd and it was ended by the federal government through war and legislation?

    I agree Business regulations are the same thing as slavery. I have a moral right to dump my factory's toxins into the river.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Wasn't the H-bomb dropped by the federal government -- that's the same as Social Security taxes.

  • ||

    It would be more similar if the Japanese got to vote on whether or not they got nuked, apparently.

  • ||

    Wasn't slavery supported by the freedom-loving states rights crowd and it was ended by the federal government through war and legislation?

    Isn't "states rights" just an aphorism for government at a different level? Being libertarian doesn't mean anti-federal but pro-state. And, since you guys give government credit for organizing everything, including property rights, don't they share some of the blame in enforcing the property rights of slave owners?

    Giving government credit for ending slavery is like a man beating his wife for 10 years, and then he stops, and declares, "Wife beating is immoral. Look , I put an end to it. Aren't I awesome?"

  • Steven F. Groce, Attorney||

    Some Laws, are just plain wrong! Cannabis Prohibition, Gun Bans that attack our 2nd Amendment rights and many others. Take your pick! As an Attorney, I can't encourage anyone to break the law, and so for the record, neither myself or Missouri Marijuana Law and Reform does so. However, this is a wonderful article, and example of how each one of us must consider the laws and the attempted restrictions upon our Lives, Freedoms and Liberties, and act as we must. I have no doubt that people like Thomas Jefferson, and our other Founding Fathers, would agree, whether it be breaking a single law, or the need for an entire revolution.
    Steven F. Groce, Attorney

    END PROHIBITION AND LEGALIZE!
    Steven F. Groce, Attorney

    STAND UP, SPEAK OUT, AND DEMAND LEGALIZATION.
    Steven F. Groce, Attorney, Life Member Attorney for NORML
    Facebook Community Page: "Missouri Marijuana Law and Reform"
    http://www.facebook.com/SupportLegalization
    http://www.attorneydwi.com/ (Law Office Web Site)

  • GroundTruth||

    Well said JD, but as Thoreau also would say, your actions speak so loudly that I can not hear your words. That is, when was the last time you stood on principal to tell the TSA goon to get out of your way, or drove through a midnight sobriety checkpoint? Not that I have the stones for either also, but it's great to preach, but man, is it hard to do! Perhaps better to make sure your son knows the nuance that the laws are evil, and the cops may not have proper authority, but they do have the power. You may be proud of his actions, but do you really want him in Levanworth?

  • GroundTruth||

    p.s. I did like the piece, and hope your kid turns out as good as you! Best regards.

  • John B.||

    Very good article that plants a very important question. I do agree some kind of order is necessary, but I do not think that it has to be provided on the base of government and politics. We are being overwhelmed by insignificant debates over politics while many legislation directly supports things that have a harmful effect on society (as for example Monsanto and their ties with government officials). As a big example could serve immigration policy with its negative consequences.
    Politics became more problem than a solution. It is partly happening because the government agenda is so wide that no one can fully understand all aspect of each political decision. Therefore, we are constantly depending on decisions which are based on non-scientific methods such as ideology, religion, moral, etc.

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  • LifeStrategies||

    Brilliant, I'll also cheer him on.

    And let's give far more publicity to Jury Nullification. It would be good to see more articles about the moral imperative for this important adjunct to liberty in Reason...

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