Why is cross the Rubicon such a memorable phrase in the West’s political vocabulary? Julius Caesar stood with his troops on one side of a river, and decided to go to the other side. What’s so memorable about that?
Caesar took a calculated risk that worked out for him, if you don’t count the assassination that occurred about fifteen years later. He decided to enter a civil conflict on his own behalf. He couldn’t know when he made his decision how it would come out. He just knew that he had a fair chance of success, however his idea of success evolved during the conflict that followed.
Our country, and especially leaders of people who oppose its government, face a similar type of risk right now. If we act to alter or abolish our government, we can’t know the outcome. We have to calculate our chances of success as we go. We know that our government has reached a sufficient point of moral weakness that the chances of success are good. It has depleted its moral authority. It acts out of fear. Its leadership is self-absorbed and touchy. I carries too much debt. It dissipates its energy in failing enterprises. Most telling, it cannot accomplish even what it sets out to accomplish, let alone what it ought to accomplish.
Any amount of doubt in a project so big makes us want to stay with familiar institutions. If we don’t cross the river now, though, the chance is lost. We won’t be able to reestablish democratic forms of governance if we linger and wait for a better time. We have already traveled far down the road toward serfdom, and no serf ever felt free. If we turn off this well traveled road and explore the unmapped territory on the other side of the river, we have a chance to restore liberty under constitutional forms of government. If we continue our current progress, we’ll have to accept chains that hobble our feet, and miseries that no free people ever had to bear.
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Citizens in the United States who think seriously about revolutionary reform return to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson for guidance. Their insights about governmental authority guided our nation’s founding. Their philosophies of democratic politics guide our nation still. If we want to explain to ourselves why we need a revolution to replace our government, we’ll find reasons in their arguments about what justifies governmental authority and what dissolves it.
The first thing to keep in mind is that changing a government is not easy. It’s harder than changing a tire on your car, a task that looks hard but is actually not so difficult if you have the right tools. For a revolution, a lot of people have to want it to happen, and you have to make your own tools as you go. Most delicate is that governments don’t normally relinquish their power without a hard fight. They have a lot to lose. If the government did not have so much power to lose, it would not require replacement. So here are some cautions before you read further in this book.
First: don’t try to replace a government that most people think is legitimate. It makes people angry, even angrier than you are. Even if most people think the government is illegitimate, you know you’ll provoke power holders and others who benefit from the way things are. No government folds up its tent and moves on voluntarily. Any government willing to do that would be too good to replace.
Second: nihilists, radical anarchists, soldiers of fortune and others with a reputation for trigger happiness and destruction should stop here. Most people like to have a government. They don’t like violence. They want security for their families. The object is to replace an illegitimate government without a war or other kinds of wanton violence. Governments founded by revolutionaries who rely on armed force have a thin claim to allegiance. Governments with a sound legal foundation have a more enduring claim, and therefore more opportunities to fulfill government’s proper roles.
Third: to alter or abolish your government is not to overthrow it. Change for the good is a process governed by reason. Overthrow suggests throwing over a sofa with people sitting in it. You have unhappy people with no place to sit. What you want is a new sofa that serves people’s needs, while you remove the old one in a truck. That process of replacement requires some planning. Change of any kind can be unsettling, so our preferences tend to gradual, incremental change. When change is required, we have a right to demand it. More than that: when government dissolves its authority, we must replace it. Our citizenship obliges us to act.
A preference for orderly change means we anticipate a familiar future. We want change to occur according to predictable processes. Unpredictable change causes confusion, and confusion only aids opportunists. If revolutionary change does come, it can happen in several ways – including violent ones. We should be ready. We should be ready to direct this explosion of energy toward constructive ends. If the explosion is only destructive, we’ll have missed an irretrievable chance to build better institutions that are young, resilient, responsive and durable.
With these thoughts in place, we’re ready to examine problems of revolutionary reform and organized, civil resistance to restore democratic self-government.
Courage to Start opens Revolution on the Ground by Steven Greffenius. The book argues for radical change in our country’s governance. Preview Revolution on the Ground at Amazon or Smashwords. To comment on the book or on this article, please enter your remarks below, or write to sgreffenius @ gmail.com.