Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jefferson: "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing"

A friend of mine saw this note from Thomas Jefferson and thought I may have something to say about it:

"Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one. 3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the 1st. condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has it's evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." - Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787

I think the American Experiment has shown that even a well-defined, limited set of powers will be expanded and abused by those who gain power (whether in a republic or a democracy).  This country has become become oppressive and violent.  So it's good to see that Jefferson recognized the need for a little rebellion.

But dismissing anarchy (ie. no government, option #1) shows a lack of imagination.  I might actually agree with him that it may not support the kind of society we have... I don't think we'd have atomic energy (or bombs) nor would we have the space technology we have today, and maybe we couldn't support such a large population, either.  However, I see that as an upside: power would not be concentrated in so few people's hands, families and communities would be more connected (out of necessity), and lives would be richer (in the spiritual sense, not an economic/comfortable sense).

It can be hard to see how to apply it, and it requires a massive rework of our social conventions.  For example, how can we get to where people will not be driven by fear to hire mercenaries to "protect our interests" in other people's lands (or states or even nearby cities)?  I'm afraid it'll require massive education before it'll work... probably spanning generations.  But it's really cool to think about it all... for example, the basis of possession as opposed to private property:
Anyway, back to Jefferson's point: a little rebellion is a good thing.  I wholeheartedly agree.  And I think we're overdue for one.