Neither Comply Nor Resist
The decay of social norms and status quo systems triggering an authoritarian tightening of the screws is a well-worn pattern throughout human history.
What do I mean by Neither Comply Nor Resist? Let’s start by noting society functions by our voluntary compliance with a spectrum of social norms–what’s socially acceptable and unacceptable–some of which are institutionalized into legally defined rules that impose judicial consequences on those who break the rules.
Society breaks down when either set of social norms–the institutionalized judiciary or the cultural norms– loses the voluntary compliance of the vast majority. This dynamic is illustrated by the “broken windows” phenomenon in which a neighborhood decays when windows are broken without enforcement or consequence (i.e. no enforcement of laws forbidding the destruction of others’ property) and the broken windows remain unrepaired (i.e. the social-cultural norms have broken down–the owners and authorities no longer care).
We can observe what happens when so-called petty crimes have no enforcement consequences (crime soars) and social norms of politeness break down (rudeness begets violence).
There is also a spectrum of personal responsibility and choice, from obedience to active resistance. This spectrum applies to both laws and regulations and to cultural norms.
Obeying laws and regulations keeps us out of trouble and maintains social order. If some drivers decide that it’s politically wrong that “red lights” mean stop, their “resistance” messes up life for the rest of us.
The problem, as we all know, is that when the Powers That Be (in any political system) feel threatened, they respond by becoming more authoritarian. They seek to tighten the screws on the populace to make sure nothing gets beyond their control, and they become hyper-vigilant about hammering down any nails that pop up as threats.
Before you know it, there are laws requiring everyone to wear their underwear on the outside of their clothing (an egregious Woody Allen reference). Regulations pile up to the point no one can even keep track or even be aware of them all. And penalties for law-breaking that is perceived as a threat to the Powers That Be increase.
Laws and regulations tend to be enforced asymmetrically along political lines. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, a large percentage of federal law enforcement personnel and attention was focused on draft resisters, to the point that other criminal activity received less attention.
As authoritarian-political pressures mount, the agencies tasked with enforcing laws end up breaking laws to meet the demands of the Powers That Be. This was eventually laid bare in the congressional Church Committee hearings. It turns out institutions that are supposed to be above politics respond to political pressure when the Powers That Be sense their control is weakening / threatened. They turn up the heat on agencies and cashier bureaucrats who resist the politicization of enforcement.
In other words, The Powers That Be tighten the screws on law enforcement and the judiciary as part of the process of tightening the screws on the populace.
Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s makes excellent sense as authoritarianism increases. Obeying the laws that are supposed to be applied equally to all is both a civic duty (that some are corrupt and get away with it doesn’t diminish our duty) and a strategy for avoiding needless trouble.
Active resistance is precisely what the system is hyper-vigilant about crushing. Trust me, getting called in by the FBI regarding “political crimes” isn’t like TV. You’re alone, and as for counting on being saved by Hollywood-movie heroic lawyers–it’s best not to confuse reality with entertainment. By all means, visit your buddy in the pen after his arrest, but he’s alone and you’re free to leave. If conscience demands resistance, be aware the system loves open resistance because that saves them the trouble of identifying troublemakers.
If it’s a matter of conscience, then be prepared to turn yourself in to start your prison sentence. This is what it takes, this is where it goes, especially for “political crimes,” i.e. crimes against the state, not against individuals. Trust me on this, I have friends who did this, I’ve visited friends after their arrest and gone to their trials in federal court. It’s not TV, it’s real life, with real consequences.
The system incentivizes compliance that isn’t legally binding. There’s no law requiring people to borrow vast sums to attend college, or take out a crushing mortgage to own a house; those are social norms we’re “encouraged” / pressured to comply with.
The point I’m making with Neither Comply Nor Resist is non-compliance and non-resistance are paths to personal freedom and responsibility that have no legal consequence. The individual who doesn’t pop up as a nail (i.e. a threat to The Powers That Be) and who renders to Caesar what is Caesar’s isn’t going to attract a lot of official attention. Fading into the dull-gray background of millions of other people with similar profiles is a practical strategy as social norms break down and authoritarian responses increase accordingly.
It’s called opting out, and it’s been a successful strategy since the waning days of the Western Roman Empire. Don’t want to pay high taxes? Then need less so you can make less money. Low income, low taxes. Start a self-employment enterprise that enables you to legally reduce your net income by expensing legitimate expenses. The less you need, the easier life gets. The healthier you are, the easier life gets. The more you produce and the less you consume, the easier life gets. And so on.
Decaying social norms and systems are more prone to breaking down. If things that were once reliable are no longer reliable or predictable, life gets less easy. The more Self-Reliant we are, the lower our exposure to risk and the downside of system decay.
The decay of social norms and status quo systems triggering an authoritarian tightening of the screws is a well-worn pattern throughout human history. It shouldn’t surprise us to be living this dynamic in real time. We don’t control the decay or the authoritarianism, but we do control our response.
Those who opt out or otherwise reduce their dependence and exposure to risk serve society in several ways. By reducing dependence and consumption, we lighten the load on institutions struggling to maintain services. By prioritizing production over consumption, we’re adding goods and services and not just consuming them. By contributing to networks of other trustworthy, self-reliant people, we’re maintaining positive social norms and setting an example of how life can still be worthwhile and rewarding even as social norms degrade and authoritarian pressures increase.
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My recent books:
A Hacker’s Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).
Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).
The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake (Novel) $4.95 Kindle, $10.95 print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)