The duty of selfish disobedience

By Katie Kieffer

Walden Pond State Reservation

Walden Pond State Reservation. Image credit: “Walden Pond 1” by Troy B. Thompson on Flickr via Creative Commons.

When a majority of progressive slugs call for thievery, I believe that a minority of “selfish” job creators may exercise Thoreau-style civil disobedience.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors setting up camp in Manhattan’s Financial District are not exercising civil disobedience. Rather, they are rousing hatred against an unprotected minority: The rich.

Henry David Thoreau is an American pioneer of civil disobedience. He refused to obey what he considered to be an unjust law—a “poll-tax.” This tax disenfranchised African American voters and Thoreau viewed it as an extension of slavery. Upon refusing to pay the poll-tax, Thoreau was arrested and sent to jail until (to his chagrin) his aunt bailed him out after one night.

In Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” he points out that a warped society will perpetuate the notion that a man is “selfish” if he genuinely and completely helps his fellow men, while declaring a manipulator to be a “benefactor and philanthropist.”

Occupy Wall Street protestors wave signs like: “We are the 99%” and “Billionaires, your time is up” by day, and sleep on air mattresses in Zuccotti Park by night. They are essentially asking the government to steal from the rich. These protestors are brazen manipulators but the press hails them as progressives “seeking a voice” and President Obama says they represent the concerns of the American public.

Meanwhile, the “selfish” one percent comprehensively helps society: Selfish people make themselves financially independent and then they create jobs for everyone else.

Who is the unprotected minority here? Who is being attacked unjustly? The Occupy Wall Street Protestors are rallying against the wealthy capitalists and entrepreneurs who pay most of the nation’s taxes while they prance around in a park, sew sleeping bags and hold up New York traffic.

Thoreau-style civil disobedience occurs when a rational minority rises up and defends truth, not when an emotional majority storms the public square. Writes Thoreau, “But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. … Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”

Thoreau retreated to the woods. He built his house with his own hands and became self-sufficient. He was “desirous of being a good neighbor” and he had no qualm about paying fees like highway taxes. He respected the founding fathers and the Constitution but he abhorred slavery. He agreed to go to jail rather than give up his belief that all men are free and equal. In short, Thoreau only justifies disobeying the government when one is following the dictates of one’s conscience, or natural law.

Replica of Henry David Thoreau's cabin and statue of Thoreau.

Image credit: “Statue of Thoreau in front of a replica of the cabin he lived in while he was writing Walden” by Chris Devers on Flickr via Creative Commons.

In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, the philosopher John Locke wrote that there is “a law of nature … which obliges every one” and “reason … is that law.” Both Locke and Thoreau maintained that when a government acts against natural law—when it unjustly seizes a man’s property either directly or via unjust taxes—civil disobedience is justifiable. Thoreau explicitly states that: “[The government] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.”

The protests in New York are marked by an absence of natural law, which comes from reason. Occupy Wall Street protestors are acting irrationally in attempting to overthrow the only system, namely capitalism, capable of generating the jobs and equal opportunity they claim to be fighting for.

The current administration is proposing a so-called jobs plan that will seize even more money from the rich—the “one percent” who take risks with their wealth and thereby create jobs and financial security for the “99 percent.”

Thoreau believed that “action from principle”—such as refusing to pay an unjust tax—is “essentially revolutionary.” When Thoreau refused to support slavery with his tax dollars he didn’t protest in the streets, hold up traffic or organize mass sleepovers in public parks. He didn’t ask rich people to pay more taxes so he could ride on their coattails.

Thoreau says that a single man who is courageous enough to stand up against an unjust law is infinitely more civil than a majority that merely opines about freedom: “Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already.”

Imagine if one—just one—American billionaire refused to pay the Buffet Tax if it is implemented? Or refused to pay the full 35 percent corporate income tax rate? What if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates agreed to go to jail for one night on principle? Would not this behavior, where a “selfish” minority opposes an unjust law on rational principle, be true civil disobedience?

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  1. videojack says:


    Kudos for your outspoken words of wisdom at such a young age. Dagny would be proud. After scanning through all the responses, I’d have to admit that you hit on a touchy subject.

    I believe that the real questions are: “What will the replacement system include?” and “Who will be worthy as participants (voters) within the next system in order to ensure its existence in the future.
    Until one begins to ask the right questions, one is not expected to yield the right answers…

  2. Brenda Donato says:

    Katie – another great article!

  3. fliz says:


    Thanks for daring to make the stand for such an unpopular opinion right now. While I fully agree with your grievances and all the points you assert, you’re also making the same mistake that the occupywallstreet protesters are making.

    This has nothing to do with “capitalism” per se.
    This has nothing to do with 99% vs. 1%
    This has nothing to do with banks being evil. (Banks provide a useful service.)

    This only has to do with one cartel. A collusion between the banks of wall street and our federal government.

    I am a libertarian. I think we should be living in a free society. I have certain ideas about what that means that socialists violently oppose. This is not the time to make those arguments. This is the one time we actually agree on SOMETHING.

    Unfortunately, most occupywallstreeters and libertarians do not realize this.

    Both of us are complaining about the Federal Reserve System. Libertarians have been doing this for years, while also complaining about a lack of a gold standard, a lack of state rights, a bloated healthcare scam, the FDA, the USDA, along with just about every other of the over 10,000 regulating bodies that make up our bloated Federal Government.

    Usually when we talk about getting rid of these and reducing government’s size, we get laughed at (by the Left AND the Right). Talk about dismantling the FDA and we get laughed out of the discussion table, even though we know we’re right.

    This time, FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, the masses are complaining about something and want a solution. This is the first time we can actually point the finger somewhere and NOT get laughed out of the room. There is only one thing we should be pushing for right now, because the masses will actually follow.

    End the Federal Reserve System. Why do 4 banks on Wall Street have such disproportionate profits? BECAUSE THE GOVERNMENT GIVES THEM MONEY! What did they do with this money? BUY BONDS!

    This means the government printed money out of thin air, gave it to some banks who then gave it back, AT A PROFIT. What happens when you print money? INFLATION.

    This, and ONLY this, is why the 99% are so f***** right now. They know they don’t have a good explanation. This is the explanation.

    • Kris says:

      fliz, The OWS protesters are essentially asking taxpayers and the government to bail THEM out. The banks merely followed the laws that corrupt politicians implemented. In other words, Bankers and Wall Street traders took advantage of and followed the laws that politicians put in place. The government is at fault for instigating this mess, not big business. The OWS protesters do not understand that bailouts and out-of-control government spending are wrong: They want taxpayers to subsidize their mortgages and college educations and union benefits.

      • fliz says:

        Kris, you are right. Tho OWS protesters wouldn’t know a good solution to their woes if it landed in their laps.

        They’ve been bred to beg for the very poison that’s making them so sick that they’re begging.

        NOW IS OUR CHANCE! it’s true that it’s not Wall Street’s “fault.” Who could blame anybody for participating in the scam of a century?

        Who do we blame? Nelson W. Aldrich. Why? Because he was the Senator who, instead of representing the best interests of his constituents, colluded with Jekyll Island gang of bankers in getting their bill pushed through and passed.

        Conservatives don’t want a Federal Reserve System either! Nobody wants one except the banks that get to make a killing loaning imaginary money. Banks would be honest, normal, functioning institutions if there was no opportunity for corruption.

        Free banking.

        We’d never, in a million years, be able to sell this idea to the masses that have been trained to run to their government to “help them” while they’re content. This is the time to point the finger!

        It’s the Federal Reserve System’s fault!

        If we say it enough times the dirty hippies will probably start singing along just because they don’t have any better idea beyond “Shit sucks and is bullshit.” (Which is actually true.)

        To everybody on here who is unsympathetic to the fact that these people really *are* getting shafted:
        You just doesn’t realize how much better *your* life would also be if the true solution to these people’s problems was actually implemented.

        They’ll just never figure out what that solution is without our help.

        End the Fed.

    • Mark-Anthony says:

      interesting, what is your beef with the Federal Reserve System? What kind of system would you suggest to handle money and the banking system? The gold standard is not realistic due to the size of the money supply, so come with some ideas ….

  4. flyer54us says:

    If the Occupiers are protesting a policy..which policy is it? Seems to me they are protesting our way of life. Thoreau didnt mind living humbly so long as he had his freedom. Confiscating wealth is the opposite of freedom, to which I believe Thoreau would see as petty.
    I would like to add that the war was unjust in HIS mind. The cause of the Mexican-American war is up for debate, so dont try and sell it as though America was entirely at fault. Some would say we were defending Texan sovereignty.

  5. Marie Frances says:

    It is amazing to me how these protesters, who stand around in Manhattan, making their absurd demands, are the same lazy people that most likely have not paid squat for anything in their life. The middle class and wealthy people are never at those protests because they have to keep working to support our corrupt welfare/handout system! Wonderful post, Katie.

    • Kris says:

      If anyone failed to read Thoreau, it’s Vashli19. Thoreau clearly states his objections to the poll tax. He writes in Civil Disobedience: “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war in Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.” I wonder if Vashli19 even read this article because they seem to be responding to something they want to read-not what they actually read. Keep up the good work, Miss Kieffer!

  6. vashli19 says:

    I just finished reading this recent post and all I could think was…WOW! Your entire post is based on either willful ignorance or just plain poor scholarship. Thoreau didn’t pay the poll tax because of his opposition to the Mexican American War and slavery. At the time he was arrested, poll taxes were still legal and continued to be a matter left to individual states until the ratification of the 24th Amendment. Similarly, the race of a voter could preclude them from voting until the passage and ratification of the 15th Amendment(1870, 8 years after Thoreau’s death).
    According to your rationale, it would be perfectly acceptable for one not to pay taxes if they were against the war in Iraq because Thoreau said “[The Government] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it”. Of course, I pay my taxes and they go to all sorts of things like war, Head Start, agricultural subsidies, and the like. Some policies I like, others not so much but we must remember that our republic is “an experiment” and not dogma. Government policies must be altered if they are proven to be detrimental to the governed, hence the Amendments listed above.
    The rich do not “create jobs”, market demand does. Supply side economics has been roundly rejected by the majority of economists and a recent IMF report details how vast income inequality actually retards sustained growth and makes recessions last longer. The wealthy in this country have disproportionately benefited from decades of government policies as much,if not more, then from the “sweat of their brow”. The data concerning this subject are irrefutable. The occupy movement is simply many Americans realizing this and they are demanding a change in policy to re-level the tilted playing field.

    • flyer54us says:

      Vashli19 do you know what else does not create jobs? Government, by neither policy or spending. If you ask Obama, the ONLY jobs out there are: green, police, firefighter, and teacher jobs…and that is it. While they have important roles to play for sure, simply adding 100,000 more cops does not stimulate the economy by the simple law of diminishing returns. They produce a secure environment for society. If 20 cops are needed for small town A, then what good are 40 cops going to do besides run up city debt, and harass motorists? Government, however, can destroy jobs with the flip of a Czar or obnoxious bloated department of bureaucracy and regulation. How many of those Occupy Wall Street protesters have created a job? How do they want people to become successful? Looks to me like KK is spot on, and I will go one further in that these protesters appear to desire to confiscate the wealth that successful people have created for themselves. Vashili19, tell me, if the rich don’t create jobs, who does? How many poor men have created jobs? I should think this is 2nd grade logic, but you have to have money to pay a salary. Here is the hard part for the left wing to understand, you have to produce something tangible, and useful in order for an economy to thrive. I refute you claim that “a vast majority” of economists say supply side is rejected. A vast majority of ideological economists maybe…but the giants of economic theory agree that the more free the market is the more prosperous it will be. Supply side is the most free policy, and it was successful.
      I would also like to point out that the “experiment” our country is going through is one of “freedom” not diverse ways of engineering economic or social justice.
      Far as Thoreau is concerned, the only reason to oppose the poll tax is voter disenfranchisement.

      • vashli19 says:

        Kris, Did you read my comment? I clearly echo Thoreau’s objection to the tax in the third line of my post. Thoreau was protesting federal policies because, as I noted, poll taxes were legal in Mass. I could have been more clear on the issue of slavery, which was effectively abolished in Mass.
        Thoreau was protesting an unjust war (federal action) and the federal government’s tacit approval of the institution of slavery in the south. In effect, he was protesting for a change in federal policy, which is exactly what the “occupy” protesters are doing.

    • Mark-Anthony says:

      Wow …”Government policies must be altered if they are proven to be detrimental to the governed”, seriously!!!! News flash, the system doesn’t work like that, with government you have the exact opposite incentives of a private firm. In government you are penalized for being efficient and productive, if you come up with innovative way to create result and save money your budget is cut the following year … and if you completely screw up (TSA, FBI, CIA in 9/11 or SEC, FDIC, OTS in the Fin Crisis 08) you get rewarded with more money and power. Also. “the rich do not create jobs”???? really, it take labor and capital is create production, and capital does fall from the sky.

      But your biggest point of utter nonsense is “Change in policy to re-level the tilted playing field” …. when has the playing field ever been level? Capitalism doesn’t work that way, but leveling the field has been tried, its called socialism. How is the working out in Greece these days?

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