Moral Equivalence and Opposing the Government
Jan03
Culture & Current Events

Moral Equivalence and Opposing the Government

The danger of revolution is that a power vacuum is usually worse than the existing government, no matter how bad it actually was. When everything’s up for grabs, history shows that the frenzy of rent-seeking almost always turns out worse for everyone – most spectacularly with the French Revolution, and most recently with the Arab Spring.

It’s no wonder that the very few revolutions in history with a happy ending – most notably the American Revolution, and most recently in some Eastern European countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union – were all accomplished by factions with a self-conscious commitment to the rule of law. As far as I can tell, there exists no other way to stave off rent-seekers and to prevent the emergence of civil war or a totally unconstrained state.

This is not, of course, to argue that a showdown with the federal government is good, necessary, or likely to succeed. But if it must happen, we could hardly ask for a better focal point than a group self-consciously committed to upholding the Constitution. The dishonest moral equivalence serves only to obscure the crucial difference that a successful standoff with such a group as its focal point is significantly less likely to end up in long-term institutional disaster than with any other plausible focal point.

So don’t be too hasty to condemn rancher militias – especially if you’re liable to be sympathetic to “protest” or “revolution” in other contexts. It’s true, this story has a structural oppression angle too. But the most important thing, if we wish to avoid chaos, is to converge around an ideology – a mythology, even – that credibly commits its leaders to closing off rent-seeking opportunities that might otherwise benefit them or their constituency. Imperfect as it is, constitutionalism might be the only ideology capable of attracting a critical mass that fits the bill.

Again, though, a standoff is not necessarily inevitable or desirable. Perhaps – probably, even – the best course of action is to avoid a standoff entirely. The worst course of action, however, is surely to chip away at the legitimacy of constitutionalism while giving legitimacy to some other less principled focal point. This, of course, is exactly the effect of kneejerk moral equivalence.

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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