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The Power of Civil Obedience


March 6, 2010
In my recent post on law and morality, Donny had asked on what basis I claimed that modern societies are more coercive than pre-modern ones.  It turns out that O’Donovan and I had discussed that very point a bit, and I’ll share here what we came up with, before veering off down an exciting rabbit-trail that the discussion opened up in my mind.  
It is as law becomes more arbitrary that it becomes more coercive, and in modern societies, law is seen as more arbitrary.  As the complexity of modern life grows, and law-making authorities become increasingly centralized and removed from the sphere of everyday life and from our knowledge and any accountability to us, we find ourselves faced with an ever-increasing number of rules that, so far as we can tell, someone in an office somewhere just cooked up according to their own good pleasure. 
“Why,” we ask, “should I drive on the right side of the road rather than the left?”  “Why, indeed, can I only drive 55 mph here and not 65?”  “Why do the steps in my new house have to be no more than such-and-such a slant?”  Gone is the feeling that the law exists for a very good reason and with very good sense, and so we should all go along with it willingly.  And, once this faith has been lost, as it is sure to be the more alienated we are from our law-making authorities, then we begin to think of all law as oppressive and arbitrary, even laws that, if we were to stop and think about them, are eminently sensible and necessary.
And so, what happens?  Well, we stop being self-policing.  And we stop being our brother’s keeper--informal social and community structures stop enforcing obedience to society’s norms by non-coercive or less coercive means.  If there’s a problem, we let the police deal with it.  It doesn’t help, of course, that we live such individualist lives that people are no longer sufficiently embedded in communities for those communities to successfully inculcate and enforce societal norms.  And so, where once upon a time not so long ago, if someone were behaving in an inappropriate or threatening way in a public place, several grown men in the vicinity would come over and give the fellow a talking to and escort him away, now everyone just looks awkwardly at one another and calls the police.  We come to increasingly think that we’re only obeying the law because we’ll be in trouble if we don’t, and so we don’t see why we should help uphold the law--let the law take care of itself.  And so the law does take care of itself, the only way it still can--force.

Both of these factors fascinate me--the decline in the role of non-civil social bodies in enforcing societal norms, and, what I want to think a bit more about in this post, the decline in our willingness to obey the law.  Most of us do still obey the law, but often not very willingly.  And this gets me to thinking--is it not possible that, precisely by our opposition to government power, our resolute anti-government stance, our passive rebellion and grudging obedience that we pride ourselves on so much, we are actually increasing the government’s power?  If I act in a lawful manner because I freely choose to, deeming it of my own accord a good thing to do, then in this lawful behavior, I am, in a sense, not under the law, not subject to the power of the government.  If enough people are like this, the government will increasingly conclude that its enforcement role is superfluous, and it will begin to scale back.  But, if I say, “Stupid government, and stupid law” and only obey because I’m afraid there’s a policeman watching, then don’t I, paradoxically, increase the government’s power over me?  Don’t I make its coercive power a reality where it might otherwise not exist?  (This is part of what William Cavanaugh is getting at with his pregnant phrase, “the imagination of the nation-state”)  When a large portion of the citizenry begins to see things this way and act in this way, the state concludes that increased coercive and surveillance activities are necessary, and the state becomes increasingly totalitarian.  This, perhaps, is why things like the Tea Party movement and the constant angry griping and passive rebellion among Christian conservatives troubles me so much.  Is it not actually giving power and reality to the very thing it wants to get rid of?    
And when I pursue this line of thought, I find that it seems to be a very New Testament line of thought.  Indeed, conservative commentators have argued something similar, it seems to me, with respect to the New Testament’s attitude toward slavery.  Liberals look at passages that say, “Slaves, submit to your masters as to the Lord” and the like and say, “Servile!  Appalling!  Paul couldn’t have written it!  Paul was against slavery, and this is as pro-slavery as it gets!”  Well no, actually.  These commands are very consistent with being against slavery.  They recognize that the master’s coercive authority over the slave depends largely on the slave’s concession of that coercive authority, his grudging obedience that only obeys because the master has coercive authority.  If the slave starts obeying willingly, freely, because he wants to obey God, then all of a sudden, his master has lost, in a sense, his mastery.  The slave is accountable to God, not to him; the slave has rendered his coercive authority irrelevant.  And once this happens, it is not long before slavery is on its way out as an institution.  
The same thing, I became convinced in my detailed study of Romans 13 last year, is going on with the New Testament’s teaching regarding the state.  Is the Roman state a bad thing (leaving aside for now whether any state is a bad thing)?  Yes.  Is it to be overcome?  Yes.  Are Christians free of the obligation to obey it?  Well, yes.  But they should obey it, insofar as the commands of Christ allow.  Why?  Because if they disobey, they give a reality to its authority over them, that otherwise is dissolved when they obey willingly, freely, obeying the Lord.  If they must disobey it, because the commands of Christ require, they strike a fatal blow against it, because the violence of this world rebounds upon itself when it tries to overcome Christ; but if they disobey or grumble in things that the law rightly commands, or things indifferent, they actually empower the state and give substance to its shadowy claims of authority.  
“Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”

7 comments:

"It is as law becomes more arbitrary that it becomes more coercive, and in modern societies, law is seen as more arbitrary. As the complexity of modern life grows, and law-making authorities become increasingly centralized and removed from the sphere of everyday life and from our knowledge and any accountability to us, we find ourselves faced with an ever-increasing number of rules that, so far as we can tell, someone in an office somewhere just cooked up according to their own good pleasure.
“Why,” we ask, “should I drive on the right side of the road rather than the left?” “Why, indeed, can I only drive 55 mph here and not 65?” “Why do the steps in my new house have to be no more than such-and-such a slant?” Gone is the feeling that the law exists for a very good reason and with very good sense, and so we should all go along with it willingly. And, once this faith has been lost, as it is sure to be the more alienated we are from our law-making authorities, then we begin to think of all law as oppressive and arbitrary, even laws that, if we were to stop and think about them, are eminently sensible and necessary. "

I'm still not getting why you think our country is different than ancient empires. Do you really think Roman, Greek, Persian, Babylonian, Incan, Aztec, or people from whatever empire you want to choose thought any differently? Do you think the rules placed over them by a centralized state were wise and informed? Or did they obey because they would be punished if they didn't?

The fact is, history is full of exactly what you're talking about: people rebelling against authority, sometimes unsuccessfully, and sometimes successfully, in which case they set up their own oppressive regime that eventually topples, too.

If oppressive government is violent, then this is inevitable, and I'm not sure why our society would be all that unique.

"And so, where once upon a time not so long ago, if someone were behaving in an inappropriate or threatening way in a public place, several grown men in the vicinity would come over and give the fellow a talking to and escort him away, now everyone just looks awkwardly at one another and calls the police."

Careful. Sometimes claims like these can be true. Often, though, they're just more of the "Why were the former days better than these?" sorts of things.

March 6, 2010 at 10:46 PM  

Careful. The part you're arguing against is mostly O'Donovan. And it's usually not a good idea to mess with O'Donovan. ;-)

I'm not trying to blow you off, actually. My point is that, inasmuch as that's a historical claim, you're right...I don't know enough history to make such a claim. But O'Donovan does, and I'm inclined to trust him. But I'll come back and do my best to put some of your doubts to rest when it's not 11 PM at night.

March 6, 2010 at 11:04 PM  

To address your objections
1) You seem to perhaps be confusing "coercive" and "oppressive." For example, you say: "If oppressive government is violent, then this is inevitable, and I'm not sure why our society would be all that unique."

But I never said that modern government is more oppressive than pre-modern government; in many ways it is, but in many ways it ain't. What I said is that modern law is more coercive. Oppressive governments are often oppressive precisely because they abandon the rule of law altogether, and, insofar as modern societies govern more or less by the rule of law, they are less oppressive than some older societies that did not.

2) To address your examples of these various ancient empires, I think it rather easy to substantiate the claim that law in our society is generally perceived to be more arbitrary and is certainly more universally coercive than it was in these societies. First of all, I note that you picked "ancient empires," which, by their centralization and totalitarianism, are more similar to modern nation-states than any other premodern societies. The vast majority of pre-modern societies, of course, were not empires, but were governed in petty chiefdoms, city-states, or tribal federations. In such societies, custom, tradition, and religious strictures would have provided the main basis for law, making it seem much less arbitrary, and making its enforcement much more of horizontal communal matter than something that had to be coerced vertically from above. Even in the ancient empires that you mention, there was little in the way of developed centralized structures of law and the administration of justice. There was, for instance, very little in the way of a police force. It was, of course, to be expected that the dictators would occasionally issue edicts (which may well have seemed arbitrary and onerous), but the vast majority of laws that governed everyday life would not have radiated from "the state" but from local customs and statutes. These would, as just mentioned, have been rooted deeply in traditions and religious ideas, and thus have required less in the way of outright coercion in their enforcement.

The Romans are the only one of the empires you mentioned that took great steps toward creating a comprehensive formal standard code of civil law and a centralized administration of justice. They are, perhaps, the exception to the rule, and it is not a coincidence that the modern nation-state was constructed largely on the basis of resurrected Roman law.
But this simply proves my point, because the only pre-modern society that fits your claim is one that was essentially modern before its time.

3) You bring up that last quote as nostalgic yearning for former days--well, of course, I wasn't alive in those former days, so I can't say with precision whether things were in fact different in that way. O'Donovan was, however, and that quote was basically a direct quotation of him. Why are you so skeptical of it?

March 8, 2010 at 5:40 PM  

"There was, for instance, very little in the way of a police force. It was, of course, to be expected that the dictators would occasionally issue edicts (which may well have seemed arbitrary and onerous), but the vast majority of laws that governed everyday life would not have radiated from "the state" but from local customs and statutes. These would, as just mentioned, have been rooted deeply in traditions and religious ideas, and thus have required less in the way of outright coercion in their enforcement."

I'm interested in seeing where you're getting this.

And also, what I objected to in your original post was the suggestion that there is some substantial different in our situation. But all I'm really seeing is that we probably have more laws than they did. Now, look at the original quote:

"it made sense for them to encourage a more full-orbed approach to law, in which motives of honor and piety were wrapped up with the more penal motivations toward law-obedience. Likewise, inasmuch as religion dominated the societies and united them in in the pursuit and regulation of virtue, there was less need to emphasize or resort to the more coercive functions of the law."

What I'm basically objecting to is the idea that ancient empires, unlike the American empire, relied on religious incentives instead of coercive incentives. We may have more laws (thought I'd still like to know where you got that idea; not saying you're wrong, just wondering), but the fundamental issue is how we are getting our citizens to obey those laws.

First, on the coercive front, I find it hard to believe that the reason the average citizen "submitted" to an ancient empire was for any other reason than the threat of violence. These were empires. They were created by coercion, so of course they were sustained by coercion. That's what empires are.

Second, we use religious incentives all the time, too. We use senses of morality and national pride, all wrapped up in Americanism, to push people to obey laws that are more difficult to enforce. Effective? Not always, but I doubt it was any different for South American villages broken up by the Incan Empire.

Now, there may be different tactics. Certain ancient empires were more openly violent than others, but I don't see much of a substantial difference.

March 15, 2010 at 3:01 PM  

One more thing. You said this:

"Even in the ancient empires that you mention, there was little in the way of developed centralized structures of law and the administration of justice."

What do you mean by "centralized structures of law and the administration of justice" and can you give me an example or two?

March 15, 2010 at 3:03 PM  

Hey Donny,
As for your first, “I’m interested in seeing where you’re getting this”...well, I don’t know that I can give you a straightforward answer. There’s no one source that I went to for these claims; it’s more like they are presupposed in most any treatment of life in the ancient world. Certainly, the absence of a “police force” in our sense is a pretty straightforward fact--O’Donovan actually had me correct a sentence in the paper where vague wording had implied that such a thing existed in the ancient world. Which part of this do you disagree with? I admit I’m a bit puzzled by the disagreement.

As far as the idea that our laws have “religious incentives” as well, absolutely! In fact, O’Donovan repeatedly pointed out how the things I was observing about ancient law were still true of our practice, even though contradicted by our theory, because human nature does not change. In our modern theory of law, law is stripped of any “religious incentives,” and to the extent that that theory has shaped our view of law, it has caused it to function differently, in the ways described in this post. But it’s of course quite true that the theory has been of limited success in shaping our views, and so many similarities between ancient and modern remain.

Your making this point, however, seems to contradict your “first, on the coercive front.” You want to say, “See, we’re still motivated by religious incentives, just like they were,” and also, “but they weren’t motivated by religious incentives, but only by the fear of brute force.” Anyway, I simply disagree. While the threat of violence always was (and is) present in any empire, it is usually a sort of last resort, only called in when other incentives fail to sufficiently persuade the populace. Otherwise, the empire would not last long (as the list of short-lived empires that tried to establish themselves by simple coercion attest). Many cities in the Roman Empire, for example, accepted Roman rule and Roman laws because Rome seemed sexy and cool and efficient, not because they were forced to at sword-point.

As far as “centralized structures of law and the administration of justice,” I mean a system similar to our modern American system, where a unified code of federal law applies to every region, enforced by a centralized bureaucracy and by a court system that is united in an ascending hierarchy from regional to a single national judicial authority. As opposed, say, to a system in which each region had more or less its own judicial structure and more or less its own laws (with a few laws applying empire-wide), so that the central authorities were only consulted when an issue specifically concerned them or required their assistance. The Roman Empire was essentially unique among ancient societies (so far as I understand) in having such a relatively modern, centralized, system of justice.

March 22, 2010 at 5:48 AM  

Okay, let me make sure I understand what you're actually saying here. Both ancient and modern societies rely on both religious and non-religious coercion, as well as both violent and non-violent coercion (violent being a last resort), and every society varies in exactly how much or explicitly they rely on each one. Ancient societies were more openly religion (deification of empires, for example), because we are more humanistic/atheistic than them. This I basically agree with.

You also talk about how our government is more bureaucratic and centralized in terms of laws. You mentioned Rome was very bureaucratic, and that they were an exception.

I'm not saying that this is wrong; I'm jut not convinced it's true, either, or in what way it is true, which more comes from my ignorance of ancient legal systems than anything. So I'm mainly wanting to see examples so I can understand what exactly this means; how were ancient empires less centralized and bureaucratic?

Is it simply a matter of them being unable to be as centralized, given poor communication? This I have a hard time believing, given some of their accomplishments.

You also mentioned the lack of police forces. Again, in regards to what? Preventing theft? Apparently they did have some kind of police forces, because merchants tended to travel safer within empires than outside of them (Rome's internal trade declined as their political strength declined, as did trade through eastern Europe and Asia with their political chaos). Or do you mean something else? I know Empirical Rome had some sort of policing force that would try to uncover treason. And they killed quite a lot of people doing it. That sounds incredibly centralized and bureaucratic.

So, I mainly want to slow down and see what exactly the distinction is that you're drawing between ancient and modern, so I can better understand where you're getting your larger points about self-policing and arbitrary laws. And the reason I'm nitpicking about this is because I've been studying more on the ancient world lately, and I continue to be amazed at how similar they are to us, so it's a bit surprising to see you drawing such a strong contrast.

March 26, 2010 at 3:19 PM  

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