The Ethics of Resistance


As America prepares to celebrate its bicentennial birthday, the future appears anything but bright. The present inflationary depression finds our altruistic rulers fighting "heroically" to keep their welfare state afloat upon the angry seas of international monetary collapse. In the liberal lighthouse of New York City they show us the way to pursue austerity by trimming city budgets of such low priorities as police, and firemen's salaries, but never a welfare check. With such high-minded and noble examples being set, it is safe to say that we will continue to experience gusts of inflation as pressure-group warfare prompts ever greater centralization of power in pursuit of unearned paper dollars. This welfare inflation will most likely be forced upon us through implementation of new (but selective) price controls—such as the fraud of indexing—until the repressed fury of millions of victims explodes in civil war. It's either that or repeal the welfare state.

Gloom and doom, perhaps, but what's worse than this and a dozen other likely scenarios of the future is the simple, blatant fact that you and I seem thoroughly unable to prevent such things from coming to pass. Americans in this generation seem unprecedentedly helpless in dealing with their political problems.


Since America's founding there have been numerous tools of retaliatory coercion embodied in the government, placed there for the use of governors and governed alike. The governed had access to these tools indirectly; through the electoral process they could hire and fire representatives who didn't view problems as they did. And, for more specific purposes, there was direct access via the courts. With retaliatory processes cutting two ways, the governed had significant means by which to restrain the governors: elections upon multitudinous levels, referendums, constitutional conventions, recalls, lawsuits, court precedents, local and state autonomy (states' rights), rights of secession, "checks and balances," judicial review, the Constitution being the supreme law of the land, Congress not funding wars declared by usurper Presidents, Presidents not executing Federal bank charters and other congressional programs, and courts invalidating the acts of both. But this was all before the welfare/warfare state's bureaucratic leviathan matured.

Today we live in an age of extreme political insulation between the rulers and ruled. The electoral process (to analyze just one of the foregoing tools of restraint) has been circumvented by the rise to power of the unelected, unfirable, life-tenured professional bureaucrat. Now we are even faced with the "astonishing" fact that such politicians as are changeable by election can be foisted upon us by the route of appointment.

To the degree it is retained, the electoral process has become a malevolent mockery of defense due to decades of egalitarian "one man, one vote," nonresidency, nonliteracy, nonproductivity policy. The net effect of this trend has been the creation of an "activist majority" charade that "legitimatizes" the latest bureaucratic fad—be it welfare, war, or nationalization of oil.

There are many symptoms of the maturation of this system. On the one hand is the tremendous boycotting of the polls by the silenced majority, which realizes that its votes do not enter into significant choices, that these have been made before candidates are selected or after the elections in the legislative chambers. And, on the other hand, it is becoming apparent even to the least aware that the bureaucracy runs itself in matters of policy.

What began in our Founding Fathers' time as merely office secretarial help soon became an administrative profession prone to corruption, patronage, and all the evils of pork-barrel politics. Since no one was interested in taking the pork out of politics, the PIGS—(People In Government Service)—were instead given the status of "civil service" autonomy so that they could hold power interminably. As with all political grants of economic privilege (no matter how tiny), the civil service job status made bureaucracy the majority party that never loses an election—the rulers without faces.


Since permanent political power implies the right to exercise that power, the muscle of administrative bureaus soon hardened into the iron fist of regulatory law. Red tape has gradually become the undue process that crushes us all. Regulatory law is not only burdensome; it makes justice a joke and legalized crime the only lucrative life style. Perhaps the latest symptom of the maturation of this system is the subtle fact that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not allowed consideration in litigation with regulatory bodies.

We are all psychologically aware that the only way to survive today is to take advantage of the tremendous confusion about what is legal and what isn't, to maintain a low profile, crawling on our bellies to escape official notice. Cautious, ponderous timidity is the style of doing business in today's America.

The crucial point is not the amount of bureaucratic caprice in which we flounder, but the helplessness with which we do so. Our once great devices of defense against our own politicians are no longer functional. This is, of course, a case of moral malice by power lusters and lethargy by the victims, but also one of disorganization due to ignorance of the nature of the enemy and of the proper tools necessary for reconstructing a rational political system.

While our bureaucratic czars wield such massive weapons of initiatory coercion as taxation, conscription, censorship, and the inflation of monetary credit via deficit spending, we are stuck with antiquated retaliatory measures—asking the government's permission to sue it; writing to our Congressmen; "running for office and changing things from Washington"; "getting out the vote come election day and turning the rascals out." Such exercises in futility are worse than useless. They're exhaustingly popular.

The solution to antiquated political tools of retaliation is not more vigorous use of them. Nor are the alternatives limited to resignation (Browne-ing Out) or blind rebellion (gun-toting "patriotism"). Instead, professional political theorists who seek liberty need to define and develop innovative institutions of political dispute settlement and retaliation. One of the yet unseen disadvantages of flirtations with the ancient idiocies of anarchy is the inability of anarchists to develop objectively viable procedures and institutions to really defend rights—even their own.


If we honestly desire to make fundamental headway against our statist enemies, we must begin by reexamining a very popular but erroneous assumption held dear by many Americans, to wit: the only thing needed to set political wrongs right is a little retaliation in the right places. As the Western songster says: "When in doubt, whup it out." Mild violence is an unfortunate cultural trait of juvenile Americana. And nothing could be less useful in today's decadent political environment. Even philosophically, retaliation has definite limits.

Retaliation to initiated coercion is necessary to stop initiators generally and thus reduce the need for retaliation itself and the overall amount of coercion. There are at least three occasions, however, when retaliation is no remedy. (1) Often the victim is too ignorant of the nature of his rights and of the coercion used to violate them to take retaliatory steps without miscarrying justice. (The punishment must fit the crime. There is no right to violate another's rights—even in ignorance.) (2) At times a knowledgable victim is too unorganized to achieve just retaliation properly. (Cowboys may know somebody's stealing their cows, but vigilante lynch law, kangaroo courts, mobs, and such are not proper retaliatory procedures.) (3) Sometimes the victim's defenders are simply outgunned too effectively to achieve significant retaliatory remedy. (Such is largely the case with Cuban and other anticommunist undergrounds.)

When retaliation is useless, the victim must have a more basic, abstract conception of defense or he will succumb to the lethargy and despair of resignation—or blindly lash out in foredoomed rebellious desperation. The preretaliatory, noncoercive perspective of self-defense which he needs at such moments has been known historically as resistance.

Political Resistance (capital R) is best defined as the noncoercive defense of rights. Armed resistance is a common misnomer for blind rebellion or revolution. To be properly differentiated from retaliation, Resistance must be recognized as noncoercive. Then it can be integrated with retaliation under the genus of the defense of rights.

Resistance has never been a science, nor even a well-defined ethic. At best it has been an art most famously practiced by passivists such as Ghandi. The little attention it has received from political scientists has been given almost exclusively to the manifestation called "civil disobedience." American thinkers, from the Founders to Thoreau to today's liberals, have been aware of the problem of morally motivated violations of immoral laws. This one aspect of Resistance has preoccupied all recent analysis and has given it a bad name among America's more thoughtful and peaceful victims. Resistance, however, is much broader and more noble than mere civil disobedience.

If a basic theory of rational Resistance is to be developed, it will only emerge from prior theories of law, crime, retaliation, and the nature of the enemy—the political-economy state. Axiomatic roots must be found and a synthesis derived that will integrate all concrete cases. Profound results can then be induced, but we must begin with basics.

Consider crime. In any court of criminal appeals one can observe that prosecutors are guided by the requirement that they prove three things against a defendant before he can be considered a guilty culprit deserving punishment. Criminal guilt must be provable with reference to motive, opportunity, and capability.

One cannot prove that I smuggled diamonds into Communist Cuba for Fidel Castro just because I was carrying a satchel of them on a hijacked plane. My well-established anticommunist credentials tend to prove my lack of any likely motive. Likewise the prosecution will not clinch its case if a teenage defendant was in jail in Pascagula, Mississippi, when his hated uncle was killed on that hunting trip in Bulgaria. He didn't have the opportunity. And a dim-witted moron won't be proven guilty of a major financial embezzlement scheme, even though he envies his employer's wealth and handles the books daily. He doesn't have the capability.


Resistance is the noncoercive defense of rights. If a person can noncoercively prevent others from violating his rights by depriving them of their motive, or their opportunity, or their capability, then he has effectively Resisted them. Reference to these points is useful for grasping the possibilities for Resistance.

The next consideration is that there are basically two goals of criminal behavior. Criminals violate rights in order to (1) get away with doing anything they want to do and (2) make others do or not do whatever they—the criminals—want them to. Criminal politics/politicians share these two purposes: (1) to confiscate whatever they want in order to do whatever they want to do and (2) to regulate the actions of other people in support of the first goal.

Given the dual motives of criminals there are two corollary ways to Resist those ends. One can obey the letter of the immoral law and violate the spirit, or one can violate both the letter and the spirit. To Resist within the regulations or outside of them is a matter of choice. Those who choose to abide by the criminals' rules while doing everything else possible to foil any achievement of goals are Obstructionists. They are the people who want to change the system. Those who choose to work outside the regulations in order to save their personal values and thus foil the criminals a little less ambitiously are the Alternativists.

There are very good and sensible reasons for abiding by the rules or regulations of the oppressor when seeking to defend one's rights from a noncoercive position. To consciously do so is an explicit effort to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor—to optimize persuasive access to him. If it is honestly believed that the oppressor is acting in good faith and does not know of, or would be horrified by, the actual results of his regulations/confiscations, then one might choose to work within the system and bring contradictions, calamitous effects, scandals, and miscarriages to light. Pursuit of this line of defensive effort has the advantage of institutionalized support, access to quantities of data and inside knowledge about the enemy's system, and a subsidized podium for top-level exposure and persuasion. If indeed the goals of the oppressor are naively held and unintentionally destructive, the inside Obstructionist is the most effective Resister. But it is a difficult method and has its limits.

As an Obstructionist one is more exposed to malevolent intent, more helplessly dependent on the good will of the organization, more vulnerable to quiet suppression and frustrated stagnation. One is constantly dealing with morally ambiguous people. One is psychologically stressed by the confused environment and denied most visibility of the good being done, if any.

The route of Obstructionism is not an "anything goes," breezy position. There are very clear steps that should be taken to be effective. The Obstructionist basically has three methods at his disposal: Protest, Avoidance, and Refusal, corollaries of the three elements of criminal culpability.


If a person must be motivated to commit a crime (discounting insanity), then Protest is the noncoercive method of appealing to his conscience and reasoning capacity. Such an effort might dissuade him from continuing a criminal course. To defuse criminal motive with dissuasion is the most efficient of all Resistive possibilities.

To illustrate the value of Protest in a simple way, I will tell you of a recent incident. In Texas the U.S. Snail recently began a program of installing Xerox photocopiers for public use in their many postal facilities. By some freak shred of self-restraint it also passed an internal policy ruling that such machines are not to be placed within close proximity of any private Xerox photocopier business. (Come to think of it, it was probably only the good business sense of Xerox, Inc., that precluded competition with established customers.)

As it happened, my local Post Office installed such a copier only a few hundred feet from, not one, but two private copier firms. The postal officials knew about the private firms being there and that their machine was in violation of the internal policy ruling. They admitted it benignly. The way they figured, it was the responsibility of the private sector to initiate proceedings to have the machine removed by filing a complaint. Since the internal ruling was not public knowledge, this would be an unlikely event if the victim or his champion was not on the prowl for such information. As I described it to an amused postal clerk—according to public policy it is the victim's responsibility to find out what rules of fair play the criminals might be willing to consider.

When I questioned the private firms about what the public machine (same prices) meant to them and what they were going to do, they replied that they were definitely losing business but that they'd written their legislators and been told the Post Office was not under legislative jurisdiction. They considered their options exhausted and sat lethargically wringing their hands.

When I suggested that they take this immoral situation to the public, to some of the "consumer advocates" and other muckrakers for an airing in the media—they religiously spouted sentiments about respecting established authority and waved off any idea of making a fuss. If it had been a private dog-eat-dog competitor denting their market, they would probably have been inspired to high notes of righteous indignation. But when faced with a political oppressor they were paralyzed with indecision. I left them to stew in their own cowardice, and they are still doing so today.

The irony of the situation, of course, is the actual ease with which they could have relieved themselves of this significant burden. The Postal Service, upon request, has removed numerous other machines in our area of Texas. But these unprotesting cowards remain oppressed by one more of Uncle Sam's incidental harassments.

Most people view Protest as a hopelessly exhaustive gesture fit only for eccentric individualists. But Protest is the Resistance method that identifies an oppressor as such, labels him and his actions for prosecution by self or others, now or in the future. Much good Protest bears no fruit for years, only to surface after decades of suppression (long after the author's death, in many historical cases) to topple regimes and change the course of history. Sometimes, of course, Protest is productive earlier, and the Protestor lives to enjoy fame and glory, while the oppressor is damned to history's horror files. Solzhenitsyn is but one example.

Far from being the weakest and most hopeless of acts, Protest is the most hopeful. It is easier in terms of effort required and most effective in terms of moving the farflung forces of justice in realms unconquered—including the future. Protest has the insuperable potential of changing people's minds with a new idea, the potential of educative impact.


For those who consider Protest beyond their capabilities or outside their area of interest, the next best form of Resistance is Avoidance. If an oppressor must have opportunity before he can violate rights, he can often be Resisted, by being noncoercively denied his opportunities. The essence of Avoidance is delay, buying time, taking advantage of loopholes (logical anomalies that the oppressor has overlooked). Within any systematized effort to violate rights, there is due process to belabor, red tape to stretch to the breaking point. The greater the bureaucratic confusion of proper procedure, the more useful Avoidance becomes. This is why statists worship the "efficiency" of dictatorships and militaristic bureaucracies. It is only the bewildering bureaucratic maze of U.S. regulatory law that at present keeps our heads as far above dictatorship as they are.

Many people had a crash course in vehement Avoidance during the Vietnam war. Students' opportunities to Avoid the draft were enviable. A description of this potential for Avoidance was reported as follows by the New York Times:

A man who is classified 1-A…has 30 days in which to request a personal appearance before his board. It can take two months to schedule the interview. If his draft board refuses to change his classification, he has another 30 days to appeal to the State's appeal board. In some cases, the man has the right to have his appeal transferred to another state, a procedure that could take another month.…It often takes up to four months for the state board to act, and if there is one dissent on the state board, the registrant has another month to appeal to the presidential appeals board. It would take at least another month for this panel to act. Some draft boards will order a man for his pre-induction physical examination at the time he is classified 1- A, but others may wait until the classification appeals are settled before an examination date is set. Physical examinations can be postponed. A man has the right to take his examination at the army examination station nearest to where he lives. If the man moves, he can have the examination transferred. A college student, for instance, would originally be ordered for an examination at a station near his draft board. He could have the examination transferred to the station closest to his campus, and if he left the campus for the summer, have it changed again. It takes at least a month and often longer to transfer the physical examination.…It was not unusual for men to have them transferred three or four times, and this process could easily take as long as a year. If the man is found medically qualified, at the army examining station, he has the right to appeal the decision to the Surgeon General of the Army, a procedure that takes about a month. Once the man is classified 1-A and finally found medically qualified, he can write a letter declaring that new circumstances (having just decided that he is a conscientious objector, for instance) require that his 1-A classification be reconsidered. By law, the draft board must then re-open his file, and the entire appeal procedure could start all over again.

For those of us who did pursue such tactics in depth during the war, this brief outline is a vast understatement. I spent a few years Avoiding the draft so deviously that I ended up getting an honorable discharge with travel pay from the Navy, after serving only 42 days of active duty—sitting in a Naval land station with medical exemption from labor.

Such is Avoidance—delaying tactics, working for the day when oppression ceases. In this bicentennial era the crisis is monetary, and tax accountants, tax shelter advisors, and tax lawyers are the primary Avoidance professionals.


If he finds himself incapable of effective Protest or cannot afford the professional aids necessary for Avoidance, the victim with his back against the wall still has an Obstructional ace up his sleeve. I call it Refusal, but it is more commonly known and practiced today as "civil disobedience."

Refusal is a challenge to be hurled at the oppressive state when and only when its apparatus is deaf to arguments of conscientious objection or special rights to exemption. Refusal is the poor man's recourse more often than others, because he is usually not eloquent enough or wealthy enough to pursue the other forms of Resistance.

To challenge the oppressor's capacity to carry out his evil threats without the aid of the victim is often enough to stymie oppression—for many reasons. In prosecuting a victim who Refuses to cooperate, most governments have to allow trials and even open-to-the-press proceedings. Slapping life imprisonment upon a youth who possessed an ounce of marijuana is an embarrassment to almost any political system. The example set by one victim in a trial situation can become dynamite propaganda for Protestors and other dissident elements. Fear of the martyr-syndrome is not overrated. It is a very real obstacle to would-be slavers.

Consequently, the last option for Resisters who would "work within the system" is to "test" the law. To break the law is not only moral but necessary in many cases. There are two differences between the callous disregard for the principle of legality, evidenced by common criminals, and the principled Protest of serious Resisters: the attitude towards prosecution and the response to punishment being added to the normal burden of being exploited by the system. A conscientious Refuser will seek to maximize the persuasive value of the trial procedure. A Refuser does not seek to be prosecuted; detection and apprehension are the obligation of the executive branch. But a Refuser does not flee prosecution, does not hide from it (as does an Evader). Nor does a Refuser flee the punishment that may ensue, as would the calloused criminal.

Refusal poses a threat to oppressive systems in many ways. It helps keep the prosecuting machinery honest by exposing it to as much scrutiny as possible. And it even serves to ascertain the otherwise untested omnipotence of oppressors with the pressure of simple economy. Oppressive systems tend to be unproductive, hence impoverished. The capacity of a slave system to pursue and prosecute Refusers is therefore limited. (The trial of Angela Davis cost the State over a million dollars.) The persecution of the Jews preoccupied much of Hitler's time, even with his totally regimented militaristic bureaucracy handling it with minimum procedural friction. Gulag Archipelago is replete with examples of how often Russians could have escaped persecution from Stalin with the simplest Refusal since there is not enough energy needed to regiment millions without their docile cooperation.

In our times, this tactic of Refusal holds promise for incipient tax fighters. Paying a $40 tax only after the State has spent hundreds tracking down and seizing one's assets is a fine way to find peace of mind, knowing that it has cost them more than it's worth to them. In every coercive effort there is a cost factor. The less malevolent the oppression, the heavier the weight given to cost rather than to the psychological factor of setting fearsome examples with cruel and unusual punishments. The cost of enforcement is critical for the IRS today. History proves that professional enslavers seek the cheapest route of conquest—literally the path of least Resistance.

The opposite of Refusal is appeasement. Faced with the fact (or belief) of being whipped, helpless—to then begin appeasing the oppressor with self-abusive concessions is the cowardice that Refusal transcends. Appeasers enable an oppressor to take it easy, letting the victim be his own undoing. Appeasement assures eventual destruction; Refusal holds promise of reprieve.


Such are the basics of procedural Resistance, of Obstructionism—playing the game by their "rules" while thwarting their goals. But it only works if the oppressor is naive, lethargic, or inadequately organized. How does one cope with the ruthlessly cunning and ambitious predator? When the oppressor is a hardened criminal there is no hope of appealing to his mind, outflanking his edicts, or embarrassing his prosecutor. The problem becomes one of escape from rather than reform of the system. When mere Obstruction offers no remedy, seeking Alternative systems is the only answer, even if the scope of such a life style is huddling over a campfire high in the hills. The Alternativist responds to the criminal's motive-opportunity-capability with Evasion-Sanctuary-Immolation.

To remain within an oppressor's domain, yet to be unmolested by him due to invisibility—this is Evasion. To disguise one's values so that an oppresser is not motivated to take them; to lie to the oppresser, to represent things as they are not, to the extent necessary to escape exploitation—this is Evasion. If done carefully, the Evader can enjoy his values undisturbed by anything but the need to sustain the disguise. But, if caught, the Evader is more than merely an exploited victim—he is now a "guilty" victim, deserving of punishments above the normal taxes, conscriptions, or what-have-you. The Evader is doubly damned when caught and vulnerable to blackmail when not.

Thus, when mere Evasion fails, the Alternativist must seek Sanctuary from the wrath of the State. If he cannot disguise his values successfully, he must move them out of the oppressor's reach in order to deny him opportunities for confiscating them. Sanctuary means putting physical barriers between the oppressor and the values he seeks—illegal barriers, the most basic of which is distance. Values can be put out of harm's way by burying them or shipping them to a foreign Sanctuary. In a small way Sanctuary—against the policemen—is what is sought in locking doors at night. In the larger sense asylum abroad is the major means of Sanctuary. Since the physical barrier must be adequate to render a passing thief's opportunity defunct, when dealing with governments the challenge is, and the distance must be, that much greater. Illegal immigration, secession, governments in exile—all are pursuits of Sanctuary.

The response of slavers to those seeking Sanctuary is always the equivalent of the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, the concentration camps shrouded in barbed wire. Moving one's self illegally calls for an Israel, or maybe an Abaco or Minerva. It has long been noted that the value of frontiers is giving the oppressed a way to vote with their feet. The question often forlornly asked is: Where will we go when America falls? Ocean communities and space exploration have glimmered as Sanctuaries of the future in science fiction stories. Perhaps we shall be so lucky.


But for those who cannot hide effectively, nor flee to some remote place of safety, there is one last-ditch, basic Alternative in lieu of bloody rebellion. That last option is to destroy one's values oneself—Immolation. It is the last resort if one's life and property are going to be intolerably regulated or confiscated no matter what is tried. A person can destroy his own values, denying the parasitical the use of the unearned, the plundered. Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have suppressed his ideas about the aqualung rather than let it become a fearsome tool of naval war in his day. In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Galt's strike required the Immolation of every participant's market ambitions.

To the extent that the values are material, they can be burned or broken. It is a repeated tactic in war for Alternativists in agrarian economies to keep from subsidizing their enemy's capacity for conquest by burning all that they have to leave behind when fleeing invading armies.

Not the least of the reasons that suicide must be legal is that if the values being looted are nonmaterial the victim may choose death over slavery. Many women have fared better dead than as concubines or slave mares to enemy military officers. Many a scientist has preferred a grave to a tyrant's workbench building weapons. However ignorant or helpless, people are never denied this last act of defiance. They can always Immolate themselves or their values. No tyrant can long survive or maintain an ambitious capacity if there is never any loot to be had.

Such are the basic forms of political Resistance: Obstructionism through Protest (dissuasion), Avoidance (delay), Refusal (testing); and Alternativism through Evasion (disguise), Sanctuary (distance), and Immolation (self-deprivation or suicide). They are the basic principles upon which to build a modern movement of Resistance to the political-economy state.

The difference between such Resistance measures and the usual practice of Retaliation, with which we are so familiar, should be clear. The methods differ, as we have seen, but the purposes differ as well. The results achieved by Resistance and Retaliation are as distinct as the methods each employ. Observe the fact that Retaliatory coercion is capable of exacting restitution and imposing restraint on criminals by apprehending, prosecuting, and fining or imprisoning them. Resistance, on the other hand, merely enables a victim to slow, elude, or weaken the criminally inclined. Perhaps the criminal is forced to cease his assault and go without plunder when he encounters Resistance; but he is not forced to pick up the tab for anything he's taken or destroyed, and he's free to resume hostilities at his leisure.

So Resistance, while not a full substitute for Retaliation, is a supplement when the situation is not ripe for Retaliation. It is a useful science for those who would otherwise be stuck with the pain of resignation or rebellion. Resistance is especially well suited to 20th-century Americans who have lost any understanding of the potential for peace they may have inherited from their ancestors. With our heritage of political institutions from the 1700's lost through inability to apply them to the challenge of political-economy statism, Americans need to learn first how to Resist before they'll be fit to Retaliate, let alone Revolt.

Robert Bakhaus is currently working on the staff of Woody Jenkins, a Louisiana State Legislator. As a libertarian student of Objectivism, he specializes in the problems of productive persons in resisting the political-economy state and promotes the tax resistance movement and the Libertarian Party.