When is civil disobedience an obligation?

web posted January 1997

Sometimes arguing your point is simply not enough.

What does a person do when they honestly believe that their nation is doing something immoral? What does this person do when the government will not listen to reasoned arguments and fails to do what is morally correct?

Grain farmer Andy McMechan decided to break the law. McMechan is the farmer who sold grain in the United States without an export permit. Upon his return, Canada Customs ordered him to turn over his tractor. McMechan refused and drive off. For this, McMechan was sent to jail.

McMechan believes that the Canadian government does not have the right to force some farmers to belong to a collectivist state-run grain pool. To date, the government is telling people that the Canada Wheat Board (CWB) is valuable to farmers, that is does the best job of making money for farmers. Of course, the government will not allow farmers to quit so they can test this hypothesis, but that's another editorial.

The reason why I asked the question that heads this editorial is in response in an editorial written in the Saskatoon Star Pheonix.

The editorial takes McMechan to task for "thumbing his nose" at the court system and states that:

"Despite all the ballyhooing by Farmers for Justice, a handful of hard-core free-enterprisers who've portrayed McMechan as a martyr who was jailed for his beliefs, the Manitoba farmer was incarcerated for his failure to comply with a court order."

Indeed, the editorial is factually correct on this point. McMechan was jailed for failing to comply with a court order to turn over his tractor. It is the reason why he refused to turn it over that is important.

McMechan, in his own way, was fighting for freedom. He was attempting to stand up to the government and tell them that they had no right to tell farmers how to market their grain. The CWB told him his grain was worthless, but McMechan found a buyer in the United States for double the price that the government was offering. He and the Canadian Farmers for Justice (CFFJ) believe that farmers should have the right to choose whether they will be part of an organization.

A country can only call itself completely free if it allows the marketplace to be free. The Canadian government is currently telling farmers that they do not have the right to unfettered access to the markets that they wish to enter.

If you accept that freedom is worth fighting for, and the government will not allow that freedom without being forced to allow you, then what choice do you have?

Peaceful civil disobedience. How many worthwhile changes have occurred in societies which saw some of their citizens break the law to prove they were right?

Rational opposition to racism in the 1960's involved breaking the law. Rational opposition to the Vietnam War highlighted that the United States may have made a mistake entering a war that its citizens weren't sure they wanted to fight, and those who did not believe that their government had a right to forcibly send them to Vietnam were correct in destroying draft cards and resisting. How about those who believed in the right for a woman to choose? The doctors who performed abortions before it was legal broke the law, but many did it with the belief that the government did not have the right to regulate the human body.

Capitalism is also worthy of civil disobedience. It is the freest economic system devised by rational humans. It is the voluntary exchange of production by human beings. The government does not have the right to limit that freedom. As I said before, a society cannot be free without a free economy.

Was McMechan right in breaking the law? Never having spoken to the man, I cannot say I know first hand what his motives were. From what I have read from him and the CFFJ, it seems he believes in choice for farmers, to allow those who wish to stay in a collective to do so, and to allow those who wish to try the free market to do so.. Is that worth breaking the law for? I think so.

It may be irresponsible of me to say so, but McMechan was right in breaking the law. The other farmers who have been charged and convicted by the government for doing the same thing were also morally justified. They were breaking a law which told them that only the government had the right to market their grain.

Sometimes civil disobedience is necessary. And that means breaking the law.

Gord Gekko

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