Subversion 024. When All Else Fails: When You Have a Right to Resist the Government

“The story you got told in 6th grade isn’t quite right.”

Jason Brennan joins Michael and Zak for the 23rd installment of Subversion. He is the author of When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice and has a radical conclusion from common-sense principles:

The conditions under which you can defend yourself from state actors are exactly the same as the conditions under which you can defend yourself from private actors.

In other words:

“Self-defense is the same for everybody.”

Brennan argues this position from common-sense moral principles with devastating conclusions. If he’s right, the following may be true:

1. It may be permissible to assassinate presidents, representatives, generals, and others to stop them from waging unjust wars, even if those wars enjoy widespread popular support and are ratified through legal means. It is also permissible to kill them to stop them from issuing certain unjust orders, even if the war they are fighting is, overall, justified.
2. It may be permissible to use force to resist a law enforcement official trying to arrest you when you have broken a bad or unjust law, such as laws criminalizing marijuana or homosexual sex.
3. If you are imprisoned for doing something that should not be a crime (e.g., you harbor an escaped slave in 1850s America or you have consensual homosexual sex in 1940s England), you may permissibly try to break free.
4. Political candidates may sometimes lie to ignorant, irrational, misinformed, or malicious voters in order to stop them from getting their way.
5. Corporations, and private individuals or businesses, may lie about their compliance with wrongful or punitive regulations.
6. A person may join the military or government bureaucracy in order to sabotage some of its operations from within.
7. You may engage in tax evasion to avoid unjust taxes.
8. Soldiers may ignore unjust orders, and in some cases, subdue or fight back against the officers who issue them. They may also in certain cases kill their fellow soldiers who try to follow those unjust orders.
9. You may use force against a police officer to stop excessive violence.
10. It can be permissible to find, steal, and publicize certain state secrets, such as some, if not all, the secrets Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning revealed.
11. US Supreme Court (or equivalent) justices may lie about what the written or unwritten Constitution allows or forbids. They may refuse to enforce or apply unjust laws.
And so on. (excerpted from pages 12–13 of When All Else Fails)*

Brennan makes this case through thought experiment, illustrative example, and from common-sense moral principles. When All Else Fails is a book that anybody interested in ethics can pick up — it assumes no background in moral theory.

We make Russia look good and humane. That’s how bad this is.”

Select Quotations from the Show

“We shouldn’t make moral exceptions for the state unless we have really good reasons otherwise.”
“The problem with the regulatory state is, once you have the power to create rules that are supposed to benefit the common good, you also have the power to create rules that benefit certain people. You should expect them to compete for those benefits.”
“If there isn’t a clear public benefit — if it benefits the few at the cost of the many — that’s a pretty good sign its rent and you should subvert it if you can.”

“It’s not clear violent resistance is a good way of creating social change.”

“American police kill more people in a month than German police shoot every year.”

Also Covered

  • Utilitarianism and the usefulness of moral theory
  • The Milgram Experiment & the banality of evil
  • What is the optimal level of deference to authority?
  • What should you do if you are a government agent?
  • The Murderer at the Door case and the permissibility of lying
  • The permissibility of lying to ignorant voters
  • Why it would have been okay for Mike to lie to the CIA
  • Why it might be permissible for your startup to break the law
  • The (justly) violent roots of the Civil Rights Movement

Books Mentioned

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement

This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed

Also by Jason Brennan

In Defense of Openness

Against Democracy

Markets Without Limits

*Obvious disclaimer that the views expressed by or advocated for by guests do not represent any kind of policy or moral positions of 1517 Fund.