The Futility of Repeal

November 18th, 2012   Submitted by Wendy McElroy

As a matter of principle, I am for repealing every piece of governmental legislation in existence. I echo and applaud the sentiment so eloquently expressed by Groucho Marx in the movie Horse Feathers: “Whatever it is, I’m against it!”As a practical matter, I think repealing laws is a waste of time.

There are many reasons to eschew a strategy of repeal. Some reasons have a moral whiff about them. Consider the “legitimacy question,” for example. Government commands people’s obedience because they believe it is a legitimate authority that has a valid claim on their obedience.The claim comes from various sources. There is an appeal to history in which the Constitution is held up like a sacred document. There is an appeal to ceremony by which politicians are sworn-to-duty in pompous circumstances in buildings that resemble temples. And, then, there are elections in which people legitimize positions of power by voting for their preferred master.

Another way to legitimize governmental authority is to plead with it to change, to use its structures and procedures in a foolish attempt to express “freedom.” It won’t work any more than regulating the economy will produce a free market. Government’s structures and procedures are hostile to your freedom and well-being. Until people realize that fact there can be no real change.

Otherwise stated: asking the government for permission to reform its laws means recognizing government’s authority to make law and, so, the request steadies the very weapon being pointed at your temple.Don’t do it. Don’t steady the hand that aims a gun at you.

As compelling as I find the legitimacy argument, the main reasons I eschew a strategy of repeal are logistic. I have seen activists – good and well-intentioned people – spend months of effort and mega-dollars to repeal a law that can be reinstated with ease and no personal expense by legislators. I have seen these people walk away from activism in defeat and cynicism with the realization that they were playing a rigged game in which they had believed. The real problem was their willingness to believe in the first place. And while they believed, a flood of new law was passed for every one that was repealed, however temporarily.

The reformers who wave banners that all reduce to reading “Let’s chip away at the edges” are trying to sweep back the ocean with a broom. It is a fool’s gambit. I sometimes wonder if legislators snicker up their sleeves at reformers who bankrupt themselves – in terms of both money and energy – in campaigns that ask them to pretty please change. Such reformers are playing the politicians’ game. Like the people who vacation in Las Vegas, they should be reminded that the House always wins.

What is the alternative? Instead of repealing laws, people should make them “dead letter.” A dead letter law is one that is still on the books but it is not enforced or enforceable. This is a de facto, real life repeal that does not involve going through the system; all it requires is for individuals to say “no.” The non-enforcement can be due to several reasons. They include,

1) a swing in social attitudes can make enforcement laughable and, so, a non-issue. A law against women exposing their ankles is an example. And, yet, there are many such laws still on the books and, technically, they are enforceable. What has happened is a change in attitude that negates the necessity of repealing such laws. Changing attitudes can be a long process but, unlike repealing laws today that can be reinstated tomorrow, it is a reliable means of creating dead letter law.

2) a sufficient enough number of scoff-laws make enforcement impossible: in short, civil disobedience. Benjamin Tucker estimated that if 10% of the population refused to obey any one law, then that one law could not be enforced. I don’t know what constitutes the ‘tipping point’ nor do I know how the tipping point can be mathematically ascertained. I do know that many laws are currently not routinely enforced simply because the population does not respect them.

Refusing to obey an unjust law is the opposite of working within the system to reform law. Saying “no” withdraws consent and legitimacy from not only the law in question but also from the overriding political structure. Saying “pretty please, will you change for me” gives power to the very people who are oppressing you.

3) there is not enough money to enforce all the laws.A news item caught my eye today. A headline stated, “Not enough funding to completely enforce drunk driving law, local judge says.” What the story pointed to was the problem of throwing DUIs in jail for an extended period. Maintaining prisoners is a money-sink and so the money-grubbing system is balking at enforcement. I have no comment on this ‘strategy’ since I don’t know how activists can influence the state’s internal finances.

Ultimately, the point is that activists waste time and money in trying to repeal laws. They also provide credibility and support to the very system they should be dismantling.

If a law is so unpopular that it can no longer be enforced, then it is de facto repealed…and in a manner that legislators cannot reverse at the stroke of a pen. Repeal laws by refusing to obey them.

57 Responses to “The Futility of Repeal”

  1. DebbieNo Gravatar says:

    Wendy, I understand that working to repeal laws ends up legitimizing government, that it can be turned around very easily, etc. I completely agree with that.

    When it comes to using civil disobedience though, if we are talking in terms of cost to the individual, even if lots of time is spent trying to repeal a law and it fails, the risks that were taken are much less in many people’s minds than disobeying a law because civil disobedience means you could possibly end up in jail.

    The risk of jail is just too costly for many so the problem is, and I suppose always has been, how do you get enough people to act at the same time, so that the risk of jail goes down? I guess that’s a question thinkers have been trying to answer for a long time now.

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about the first point, about how a change in attitudes ends up making a law unenforceable. That is indeed a slow process and lately I’ve been thinking that this happens not because anyone’s minds were really changed but simply because the people who grew up believing certain things and created stupid unjust laws simply die off. So perhaps there is no real action to take at all, except to not feed our kids beliefs that lead to such laws?

    • Debbie makes several good points that we should think about. For now I just have one thought on the fact that:

      “The risk of jail is just too costly for many.”

      In terms of financial contributions, if someone is not willing to risk the the potential cost of performing an act of civil disobedience themselves they could always contribute financially to the efforts of others who are willing to take the risk. I think such donations could definitely be far more worthwhile than if given to support the efforts of civil disobedience activists as opposed to the efforts of political campaign activists trying to elect a candidate to repeal a law, etc.

      • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

        That’s a really good way of looking at it. There are plenty of broke activists who would gladly continue to engage in open civil disobedience, especially if they knew rent was covered while they are in there.

        It would be the division of labor with activism. Some people are really good at making tons of money, but they don’t want to go to jail and risk losing all of their income. Others aren’t so great at making money, but they do a really good job at beclowning the state with disobedience.

        So, we need to figure out a way to get the civ dis people enough money to make ends meet.

        Really, it just comes down to getting more people to realize that spending money on repeal is a waste. Once they figure that out, they’ll find more worthwhile ways to donate towards activism.

      • Hi Peace: What you suggest is a mainstay of non-violent resistance…a term I *really* should start using exclusively in place of civil disobedience. It is a far more inclusive expression and does not suggest any sort of confrontation. That said…again, your point is perfect.

        For one thing, I have done my protesting on cold, unpredictable streets….against war, against taxes, against drug laws, against zoning laws, etc. I now live on a farm in splendid isolation, however, and I am of an age that discourages physical conflict. BUT I am 100% pleased to see other people who were not born when I was carrying protest signs being eager to say NO in a public way. Good for them. Good for me that they are out there. If a fund exists for their bail or whatever other needs that a few (or considerable) bucks can cover, then count me in. I used to wonder whether those who contribute “remotely” were cowardly but I realize — because I am walking in those shoes — that everyone has a role to play and putting your money on the table is as valid as holding a picket sign. Especially when you put your name proudly on the contribution.

    • cb750No Gravatar says:

      You can be disobedient without jail. Counter economics was very effective in bringing down the soviet system. Its the process of having a better economic system inside a worse one and simply invalidating the worse one so it fades out.

      In the case of Obama care, going back to things like free will clubs and associations and voluntarily pooling money to hire a doctor for the group is an alternative. Or others practicing medicine. The state monopoly on medicine is what gives the state its power.

      Go around the system. GET HEALTHY. Avoid needing the doctor. Learn to heal yourself. Work through a black market… all a viable alternatives to being violent.

      • Hello Debbie: Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think I define civil disobedience in a broader manner than you do, however, and I do not think it has any necessarily connection with being imprisoned. As an anarchist who lives in a condition of civil disobedience, I have never been jailed. (I have no excuse.) One small example of what I view as civil disobedience: I trade with neighbors, attend swap meets and garage sales, I recycle, participate in freebie and barter nets…in short, I pay as little tax as possible to the state.

        I will not write in specifics of any laws I may be disobeying rather than merely eschewing because advocating or promoting the violation of law is itself illegal, and I solidly believe that people should not martyr themselves by taking unnecessary risks. I will merely say that what happens in privacy or with people you trust is still fairly safe.

        I highly recommend Gene Sharp’s 3-volume work on non-violent resistance for a fine sense of what is possible without violence…and, in many cases, without confronting the state directly. Again…no martyrs. Freedom needs survivors.

        • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

          This is the third time in three days I’ve seen Gene Sharp’s documentary referenced. And I have never even heard of him before. I guess I’ll have to check it out.

          • DebbieNo Gravatar says:

            Wendy, thanks for pointing out the broader definition of civil disobedience. I’ve always considered civil disobedience to be more radical and extreme (and therefore dangerous) than the other actions you describe in your definition of civil disobedience.

            Hmmm, it makes me realize that I have been manipulated again through the war of words. Those who benefit from the status quo may have successfully pushed that definition on me, in the same way that anarchy as a dangerous idea has been. I realized they were wrong about what anarchy really means and now you have helped me realize they are wrong about civil disobedience.

            Oh and Seth, the first time I ran into the mention of Gene Sharp is when I was reading issues of The Voluntaryist. His work has been on my list of items to check out as well and now it just may have been pushed to the top.

            • Debbie…my pleasure. Any time I can promote Sharp’s work, I am pleased to do so. He was a hero of the civil rights movement, BTW, who stood side-by-side with Martin Luther King as one of his key and trusted advisers. I remember meeting with Sharp and he was *still* — after years and years — lamenting bitterly how King refused to provide for a line of succession within the civil rights movement even tho’ he knew his life was in danger. I don’t know why there has been so little written about Sharp while other far less influential figures, like Jesse Jackson, have been civil rights superstars.

              The ultimate goal of civil disobedience (or non-violent resistance) is giving a non-violent NO to the state and, then, continuing to live your life. You go to the streets or otherwise seek a (hopefully) non-violent confrontation only when there is no other means of self-defense. And, then, when you are pushed to that ultimate, you never protest without a network. You do so with pro bono lawyers (or other people) who will bail you out, you have fellow supporters who know where you are, you never endanger the welfare of children at home who may need you to return promptly, etc.

              But, as I said, direct confrontation is only one aspect of non-violent resistance. Everyone who does not report the salary from a part-time job, everyone who builds an extension to their home in violation of “code,” all activity on the black or even gray market…that’s civil disobedience and non-violent. It doesn’t matter that the people taking these actions are not consciously engaging in political dissent. Their actions ARE political dissent whatever the intention.

              I can tell from your response that you are, by nature, a thoroughly non-violent human being. I am as well. I wish you the very best in exploring the rich possibilities that non-violent resistance offers to those who love both freedom and peace.

          • Seth…Gene Sharp is pivotal. If you have a choice between reading him and reading me…I want him to win out. BTW, it is a series of books rather than documentaries. Hmm…you make me wonder. I will go next to check out whether Sharp’s work has been “translated” into YouTubes or other video.

  2. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Great article Wendy!

    This is a more eloquent way of what I’ve been saying for a long time. The State’s power, like all criminal organizations, is dependent of two things: resources and resistance.

    The more resources a criminal organization has the more power it has. The less resistance a criminal organization has, the more power it has.

    So, the anarchist’s goal should always be to reduce the resources of the state, and increase its resistance.

    I do this by using Bitcoin and not giving the government money directly. And also by disobeying unjust laws. This also opens the door to violent insurrection as it is undeniably a form of resistance. But I don’t see that happening until the risk of not violently rebelling is greater than the risk of violently rebelling.

    That’s really the most I can do as an individual. The more people do this, the weaker the state gets. There’s no ifs ands or buts about it.

    • Seth, yesterday I watched the documentary “How to Start a Revolution” (2011) about the work of Gene Sharp and the recent implementation of his strategies for non-violent struggle in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. I intend to read his book “From Democracy to Dictatorship: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” as soon as I finish the book I’m on now (Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty”). His ideas are all about using psychological weapons to undermine the support of regimes so that in the end the dictator has no power left, in a way that is reminiscent of Etienne de la Boetie’s Colossus falling of its own weight once people are persuaded to stop supporting it. In short, I really don’t think that violent strategies are necessary nor helpful. Gene Sharp said something in the documentary to the effect of the fact that violence is the state’s most powerful weapon and that people would be fools to choose to have a fight with the state with that weapon. Instead if people want to be successful they should choose to use psychological weapons in their fight to remove support and lift the veil of legitimacy of the regime they want to dismantle. It is much harder for the state to defend against this sort of weapon.


      “It is necessary to recognize that the ultimate power of every government—whether of kings or caretakers—rests solely on opinion and not on physical force. The agents of government are never more than a small proportion of the total population under their control. This implies that no government can possibly enforce its will upon the entire population unless it finds widespread support and voluntary cooperation within the nongovernmental public. It implies likewise that every government can be brought down by a mere change in public opinion, i.e., by the withdrawal of the public’s consent and cooperation.” – Hans-Hermann Hoppe

    • I want to endorse Seth’s point about BitCoin. He has made a convert of me and I encourage everyone to check out this alternate currency that provides financial privacy. And, yes, I know that privacy is not perfect.

      • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

        Actually, Bitcoin is as anonymous as you want it to be. For example, when I put up a public Bitcoin address in my donation page, that is clearly not anonyous at all. And it wouldn’t be too difficult for somebody to find out whose address that is if they were inspecting the blockchain.

        However, if I route my Bitcoin client through Tor, or alternatively create an anonymous address that gets filtered through a mixing pool offered by wallets, and then give that address to an individual privately, such as through encrypted email communications, then your Bitcoin address can be considered fully anonymous.

  3. Wendy, fantastic article. The only point on this issue that I think I disagree with you on is the view that the legitimacy argument against participation in electoral politics is sufficient to show that people should not participate in electoral politics to try to roll back legislation.

    First of all, it’s clear that legitimizing the state is not aggression and is thus not unlibertarian. Legitimizing the state per se is not unjust. If someone legitimizes the state that just means that they do something which is likely to influence someone else into erroneously believing that the state is justified in its rule.

    If you believe that intentionally legitimizing the state is immoral (as opposed to unjust), note that many sorts of actions, not just actions intended to legitimize the state’s rule, may have the effect of legitimizing the state. It thus is not necessarily our fault if some of our actions have the effect of influencing others into believing that the state is legitimate. For this reason I do not believe that voting or otherwise participating in electoral politics is necessarily immoral either. While it may be true that the act of voting may influence some people into thinking that it’s rule is legitimate by “accepting its authority as a tool of change,” our intention in voting certainly wouldn’t be to legitimize the state in this way and thus any such legitimizing that occurs can be consider an unintentional side-effect of our actions that is not our fault.

    If we introduce the goal of achieving a free society, then there is now another possible reason to oppose participation in electoral politics. Even if voting is not unjust (as I believe), and even if the fact that it legitimizes the state in some sense does not make voting immoral (as I believe), it may still be a bad idea to vote in the sense that it may be a counterproductive strategy for achieving a free society (our goal), or it may be a less productive strategy for achieving a free society than the strategy of not participating in electoral politics.

    One may be tempted to point to the legitimizing-the-state effect of voting as a reason for saying voting is indeed a counter-productive strategy (since of course we must delegitimize the state in order to achieve a free society). This is the exact argument that I argued for in my essay “The Hard Case: Why Electing Anarchists Is Counterproductive” on my blog.

    After sharing my essay with some people on the Mises forums to get feedback I found someone to explain why the argument is wrong. Graham Wright (the great YouTuber who made the viral “Government Explained” video) wrote:


    “Voting isn’t aggression, and it doesn’t constitute consent to be ruled. So a libertarian qua libertarian (and by libertarian I mean someone who accepts libertarian principles, not the broader Blockean meaning of libertarian) can have no objection to voting. Political philosophy has nothing to say about this matter. Which means the question ‘is it ever a good idea to vote?’ must be decided by something else rather than just political philosophy.

    “So we might rephrase the question by bringing in a specific goal: ‘is voting productive or counterproductive to the cause of a free society?’

    ‘PeaceRequiresAnarchy: After pondering what it really means to say that a vote legitimizes the state/rulers I found that I agreed with McElroy that voting does legitimize rulers. I also concluded that in order to achieve a free society we must delegitimize rulers. And thus, I concluded that we should never vote, as voting (even for anarchists) legitimizes rulers and is thus counterproductive to the cause of a free society.’

    “I think there’s an error here. Voting is not the only thing that legitimizes rulers in the eyes of the masses. There are lots of things that legitimize rulers, such as the erroneous beliefs that rulers are necessary or beneficial for justice, equality, fairness, national defense, law and order, to provide a safety net, to steer the market, to protect workers from greedy capitalists, consumers from dangerous products, and on and on. All of these things make the state legitimate in the eyes of the masses too.

    “From this larger context, voting can be said to be productive to the cause of a free society, if voting is used as a means to help eradicate those all those other erroneous beliefs held by the masses.

    “You have analysed the act of voting in isolation, and yet you’ve used your conclusion to answer a wider question, a question which necessarily requires consideration of the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that there are many, many other reasons why people believe in states, and a Ron Paul presidency, for example, would do so much to eradicate these beliefs that voting for Ron Paul to try to make that happen far outweighs the benefits of non-participation, in terms of the effect on the perceived legitimacy of the state.”


    Note that I agree with the pragmatic consequentialist arguments against voting. While putting a lot of time, energy, and money into a political campaign, may possibly be able to bring us closer to the cause of a free society, I doubt that it is nearly as effective of a strategy as various apolitical strategies that abstain from participation in electoral politics.

    I thus agree with this modified version of a voluntaryist’s views:

    “Voluntaryists are advocates of non-political, non-violent strategies to achieve a free society. We reject electoral politics [as an effective means of achieving a free society]. Voluntaryists seek instead to delegitimize the State through education, and we advocate withdrawal of the cooperation and tacit consent on which State power ultimately depends.”

    • Steve DNo Gravatar says:

      ‘is voting productive or counterproductive to the cause of a free society?’

      Your time unfortunately is a zero sum game. You have only so many seconds of life. Make them count.

      the real question is: is voting more productive or counterproductive to the cause of a free society than an alternate use of your time or more productive to you personally?

      Alternatively, do I have anything better to do than spend two hours in a line up waiting to vote?

      The answer is: yes.

      • Well said. I just hit my sixties. I am in amazingly good health and, so, I expect to live for a few more decades BUT I have an increasing appreciation for the importance of time. It is the one absolutely irreplaceable factor. If you ask me to spend a day doing XY or Z, then you want something more valuable than money. Hell…at the end of my life I would probably give all the money I own to get back that one day. Good point, Steve.

      • “the real question is: is voting more productive or counterproductive to the cause of a free society than an alternate use of your time or more productive to you personally?”

        Good point. There’s no neutral choice. We must measure how productive or unproductive something is relative to other possible actions we might take.

  4. Rick DiMareNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent article, Wendy. Trying to repeal a law is indeed a “fool’s gambit.” The trick is to put government in a legal position that, no matter how many resources they use to defend, they can’t win because they’re causing Constitutional conflict.

  5. SinCityVoluntaryistNo Gravatar says:


    What is your opinion of the states’ rights movement in this country? I’m referring to the revival of nullification and the tenth amendment. States like Virginia have passed already passed laws that effectively nullify the National Defense Authorization Act, and Colorado recently got the green light from citizens to legalize weed. Do you see this movement as the stepping stone to unfettered civil disobedient?

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      I view that as merely the State(and people who believe in and participate in the State) as having surrendered on the marijuana issue.

      Take for example WWII. When the Nazis surrendered on the battlefield did we chalk it up to them coming to their senses and doing a good thing? Or do we chalk it up to them accepting defeat?

      When the state decides it’s in its best interest to stop waging X war, it is not an endorsement of participating in the State. It’s merely a sign of victory that the State is admitting defeat.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        WWII was before my time so I am not part of the “we” you mentioned.Also not every German soldier was a National Socialist. It is a given that the thugs in top positions in the German government were National Socialists but many of the soldiers were conscripted and were not supportive of the National Socialists regime in power in the German state and saw no choice but to comply with those who collectively and perhaps individually were the state. Keeping this in mind I generally refer to the German soldiers and military of tat era as Germans and not Nazis. As a comparison US soldiers during WWII were not called Democrats because FDR was Democrat. During W’s time in office the US soldiers were not called the Republicans in Iraq and Afghanistan.


    • Hello Terrymac:

      I pretty much agree with what you say. Laws follow opinions.And the truest, surest way to lasting reform is to change the heart and soul of society – which involves changing the attitudes of a significant number of people (perhaps 10%). It is not a fast route and that’s a problem because everyone is looking for the quick fix these days.

      One point on which I quibble: you state “repealing laws is not the first strategy, but nearly the last; it seems to come after widespread noncompliance.” I suggest that, at the point of widespread noncompliance, the law has already been repealed in a de facto manner and it is both counter-productive and irrelevant to include the state. The state may (or may not) decide to enforce the defunct law through brute force but that is the only option left to it. It is not an option that the state generally wishes to take because unpopular law enforcement is expensive, it breeds resistance, and it exposes the state’s brute ugliness rather than having it masked by the pretty myth of legitimacy.

      • “I suggest that, at the point of widespread noncompliance, the law has already been repealed in a de facto manner and it is both counter-productive and irrelevant to include the state.” – Wendy

        The one quote that I wrote down from the “How to Start a Revolution” documentary on Gene Sharp is very related to Wendy’s quote above:

        “There’s one thing that’s been ‘learned’ maybe from Tunisia and Egypt that I think is a mistake. And that is that the existing ruler has to resign. He doesn’t have to resign. You take all the supports out from under him; he falls. No matter what he wants to do. This is the distinction in the analyses between nonviolent coercion in which he has to resign but he’s forced into it and disintegration when the regime simply falls apart. There’s nobody left with enough power to resign.” – Gene Sharp, “How to Start a Revolution” (2011) documentary

      • John David GaltNo Gravatar says:

        I beg to differ here. Having “dead letter” laws on the books gives cops an excuse to make trouble for you whenever they feel like it, and some will.

        Voting or otherwise making requests of the state is only aggression if the same action on your own behalf would also be aggression. Repeal usually isn’t.

    • Hey SinCityVoluntaryist…Great moniker BTW. I replied on the subject of nullification later down on this thread and it may answer the question you raise. I cannot dispute that using one government structure against another may inspire a civil rights movement because there is historical precedent. I do dispute the prudence of doing so, however, because relying upon the state is a form of abdicating power to it. And that never works out well for a self-respecting individualist. I know I just conceded historical precedent but what might have happened in those same circumstance if people had eschewed the state and relied on themselves? No one will know, of course.

  6. SinCityVoluntaryistNo Gravatar says:

    ^You have to remember, Seth, that the nullification movement is not a matter of state v. state. Rather, it’s an example of individuals v. state. Yes, it’s still going through the state in some regards in order to gain something. However, it does have the power to make some real difference if enough people get behind it.

  7. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    I favor the nullification of bad laws.


    • Nullification generally means that states have the “right” to invalidate federal laws that are deemed unconstitutional. Already, with this one sentence, I have a lot of problems with the concept. First, it seems to assume that rights come from a piece of governmental paper — the Constitution. Second, it assumes that a collective governmental agency known as the “state” (as in NY or Montana) can have rights in any legitimate sense. Third, it is a state’s rights concept and I have never cleaved to the idea that Montana has more of a claim of jurisdiction over an individual than the federal government does. I am for decentralization in a free market sense but I fear the government in my own backyard as much or more than the government 1,000s of miles away. Nullification really isn’t about individuals v. the state. It is about one type of government v. another type…with the individual as likely to be screwed by one as by the other, or by both.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        Rights are not granted by a document and thus a constitution does not grant rights. The US Constitution did not create any rights. Individuals within geographic designations called states have the right to nullify unconstitutional laws and to secede from any form of governance.

        • HReardenNo Gravatar says:


          There are states and parts of states that have seceded successfully from other states. i.e. West VA seceded from VA and the CSA in 1863 and became a state within the USA.

          • Good morning HR. Of course I agree the Constitution does not grant rights but there are an amazing number of people who seem to argue for that exact point. As for nullification of laws by the states..I grant no more legitimacy to a state mafia than I do the federal one, and I protest most vigorously against a state having “the right” to nullify a law while an individual cannot similarly do so. Where does such a state right come from? Collectives cannot have more rights than the individuals who comprise them…and I don’t know of anyone who has agreed to relinquish or assign their individual nullification rights to a state authority. Which means the state is claiming rights it denies to individuals.

            Besides which, I don’t think states are more just than the federal gov. I fear them more because they are closer to my front door.

  8. EricNo Gravatar says:

    “If a law is so unpopular that it can no longer be enforced, then it is de facto repealed…and in a manner that legislators cannot reverse at the stroke of a pen. Repeal laws by refusing to obey them”

    You bring up a great point. The Alabama legislature didn’t to repeal the laws prohibiting interracial marriage until 2000. The law had been a dead letter for decades. I remember civics teachers explaining that interracial marriage was still technically a crime. BS laws go a long distance towards undermining the state.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      Uh, the war on some drugs continues eventhough enforcement of drug laws have failed badly. Good people are still being hurt because of the attempt to enforce the dtug laws. The drug laws should be repealed because innocent people are continuing to be hurt be such laws. Also from a philosophical view if one owns one’s self then one has the right to use whatever drug one wants to.


      • HR! I was hoping you would show up. Once again we are on opposite sides of the debate, however. If you scroll down to an answer I gave below, then you will see some of the reasons I do not endorse nullification… The word has a good ring to it but I don’t like the reality. Cheers to you, my friend.

    • Thanks for the post Eric. There are many, many more dead-letter laws than ones that are enforced…and for precisely the reason you state. Repealing the law against interracial marriage in 2000 was a farce…or worse. It was the legislature patting itself self-righteously on the back for “repealing” an injustice that it imposed in the first place. Is there anything about politicians that is NOT disgusting?

  9. terrymacNo Gravatar says:

    In most cases, civil disobedience seems to come before the law is repealed. I can think of four examples. People ignored the laws against sodomy and let it be known that the laws were enforced selectively or not at all. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against consensual, adult, private, noncommercial sex were unconstitutional – effectively recognizing that the laws were a “dead letter” in many places. This final judgement was beneficial, in that it made universal the grounds for objecting to selective enforcement.

    Marijuana laws are changing in response to public opinion, widespread non-compliance, and the numerous costs of enforcement – not only to the government, but to those who are incarcerated.

    Home education was illegal or difficult 30 years ago. Parents went ahead and did it anyway. The laws are slowly being liberalized.

    Concealed carry is the fourth issue. Laws have been liberalized in about 40 states; some recognize “Constitutional Carry”. This too was preceded by widespread non-compliance. It must be admitted that applying for a permit does tend to reinforce the legitimacy of the State, but it also increases the constituency for repealing the requirement for licensing, when people realize just how onerous the process is.

    In conclusion, repealing laws is not the first strategy, but nearly the last; it seems to come after widespread noncompliance, not before; and it removes yet one more excuse for the government to intimidate and control people.

    It also tends to remove any justification for the State. If I defend myself and teach my own and provide for my own safety net, what exactly do I need the State for?

    • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

      To terrymac: Of course as an anarchist neither you nor I think we need the State. That is not the point. The State requires docile obediance and will kill you if you cause them enough trouble. Since the government’s military is probably the best killing organization in the world, we individuals are ultlimately helpless against it if it targets you. Since the Patriot Act has legalized “disappearing” enemy combatants, we can’t even be sure if the government is rounding up anarchists or not. Thus the inherant danger of opposing government has gone up exponentially since 9-11. Since the rewards of civil disobediance or trying to change laws are so minimal, one has to wonder at the rationality of making the effort.

  10. Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

    I am often amazed at the brilliance of your writing Wendy, but this was even better than usual! Most anarchists have probably thought similar things, but your ability to write those ideas clearly sets you apart. Thank you, and keep up the great work!
    Unfortunately despite your brilliance and the logic of freedom’s ideas, the statists are winning bigtime. Today’s world makes me feel so hopeless. Though I would like to agree with you that non-violent methods of resistance like civil disobediance can eventually prevail, little in human history or psychology gives credence to such a concept. It seems like the only time meaningful change occurs is due to violence or its threat. Recent studies seem to indicate that humans “think” emotively far more than logically. That seems to me to promote violent reactions over reasoned responses. Over 40 years ago my father wrote a paper on the concept of what he called “motigration”which he loosely defined as balancing our emotions with our rationality. A fine idea, but one that has not caught on and is unlikely to do so.

    • Good to see you, Fritz! I am more optimistic about the future of freedom than you…and, perhaps, one reason is that I credit positive factors like non-violent resistance, technical advance, compassion, and creativity with being far more influential than mere violence. You say that nothing seems to be done without violence. I disagree. Nothing that is worthwhile can be achieved through violence because the “means are the ends in action.” By this I mean, violence as a “means” produces violent and callous ends. Whatever is worthwhile within man and society comes from individual effort and co-operation, even if the co-operation (or exchange) is performed in the absence of any particular goodwill…as is true of many marketplace transactions.

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        Wendy, it is not that I discount such things as tech advancement or compassion. Far from it! I just see that the old military logic that “he who has the power to destroy has the ultimate say” is basically correct. The politicians steal our money and freedom largely by coercive threats of violence. Who would pay taxes without such threats?! So long as the huge advantage in violent potential remains with the state, individuals will be forced to give in or die. Very few of us will die for freedom or anything else. Here in athe USA money usually means power, but make no mistake, the state will kill anyone it considers an influential enemy. The major force keeping us relatively free is the fact that the people are largely armed and thus balance somewhat the military and cops.
        I liked your comment on the value of time as we age. I am 60 now and wish I had the money to buy a membership with Alcor to be frozen at death for possible reanimation. I get to feeling that not only my society but even my body has betrayed me. I’m old!!! Even with all the life extension supplements and exercise I still have my dad’s genes. He died at 66. Live free lady.

        • “I just see that the old military logic that “he who has the power to destroy has the ultimate say” is basically correct. The politicians steal our money and freedom largely by coercive threats of violence.”

          It’s true that they threaten people with violence to make them pay taxes, but it’s also true that if they didn’t have the voluntary support of a lot of people they would not have enough power (even with all their guns) to control us all and force us all to give them our money.

          Many people say, “I don’t know about that… the State is pretty powerful,” but Larken Rose reminds us in his nice animation “The Tiny Dot” ( ) that the people making up the state make up only a very small portion of the population. The rest of us can easily over power them.


          “If states have everywhere been run by an oligarchic group of predators, how have they been able to maintain their rule over the mass of the population? The answer, as the philosopher David Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, is that in the long run every government, no matter how dictatorial, rests on the support of the majority of its subjects.” – Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty, p. 66


          Even if they had all the guns that still would not give them sufficient power to maintain control of the rest of the population. They are too outnumbered. They rely on the voluntary support and obedience of a large portion of the population.


          “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.” – Etienne de La Boetie, The Politics of Obedience, p.47

          More quotes on this issue are under the “How to Achieve a Free Society” section of:

          • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

            I fear you are being too idealistic and not pragmatic enough here. I think the state would even use nukes against its own people if necessary to keep power, so yes the statists do have most of the power no matter how much they are outnumbered! Even without using weapons of mass destruction, the military might of the state is quite overwhelming to disarmed people. Nobody will rationally risk defying the state seriously if they know that such defiance regularly lands people in jail or gets them killed. Remember what they did in Waco. Hell, the physical evidence indicates that 9-11 was an inside job. If our government can sell such a huge lie after murdering thousands of its own citizens to get the Patriot Act, then they will have no compunction of making an example of you or me.After such intimidation calling obedience to the state vountary is ludicrous. The state may not be able to control us all, but all they need to do is to cull out the leaders.

  11. terrymacNo Gravatar says:

    Are the statists really winning, or are they simply getting more desperate? About 4% of American children are now home-schooled; the number increases about 8% annually; these children run rings around their government-schooled peers. If these are not the vanguard of a movement to de-legitimize the State, I don’t know what such a vanguard would look like. Almost entirely un-regulated, lacking official certification, often lacking even college education, going against all “accepted wisdom” – and demonstrating the great power of free action and free communication.

    Rising figures for gun sales suggest, again, self-reliance is becoming popular. This goes much further – when even Walmart sells extended-storage food kits, prepping has gone nearly mainstream.

    Change happens at the margins. To predict the future, study not the masses, but those who depart from the norms. Look outside North America at the rapid rise of independent non-government schools, as discovered by James Tooley. — many of these microschools exist completely outside the regulatory net of the government.

    • Terrymac…you have hit on the one aspect of American society in which I find there to be true hope: homeschooling. Nothing, nothing is more important than to break the hold of public education. And it is happening — homeschooling, that is — spontaneously.

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        I agree that homeschooling is one of the few hopes for freedom lovers out there. Unfortunately, the majority of homeschoolers are religious nuts who preach their own brand of authoritarianism.

  12. Brendan RomanNo Gravatar says:

    So are you basically for getting arrested in order to throw a monkey wrench into the system, as there’s a network there to support you? (A discussion came up on the forum over your exact position on this.)

    • I think a direct confrontation with the state or its agents is the last tactic one should employ…and I do not criticize people who *never* take that step because it is a judgment call based on individual circumstances. But, if you protest with the possibility of being arrested, then you should make sure you are prepared to handle the consequences with as little damage to your life as possible. This includes linking up with a support network.

      BTW, the purpose of being arrested is usually not to throw a monkey wrench into the system but in order to demonstrate the injustice of the state in a visceral manner. And the people to whom you are demonstrating this truth are the third parties who are watching on TV or in the media, etc. For example, the civil rights marches from the 60s did not “gum up the system” so much as they won overwhelming sympathy from the general public who could not stand the sight of children and peaceful protestors singing hymns being brutalized by police. When general opinion changed markedly in the favor of the marchers, the government had already lost and legal change was only a matter of time.

      I do not dispute that confrontations, like the marches, may be necessary at some point for some goals. But I think such protests constitute the tip of the very large iceberg that is non-violent resistance. Much much more of the strategy involves education, self-reliable, and simple quiet disobedience.

      • Brendan RomanNo Gravatar says:

        Yes, but I think that the way things are now, it’s at a point where someone has to take that step.

        I can agree that small-scale protests by a few individuals will probably serve more as a propaganda tool than as a monkey wrench, but once enough people are on board that it’s impossible to arrest them all, then you’ve got a pretty effective monkey. I think this is basically how most peaceful revolutions happen.

  13. This is a particularly interesting debate Brendan because I do not know if I am correct or not. Moreover, I don’t actually disagree with you on the monkey wrench theory. It is not my favored approach to reform nor my analysis of the situation but, when you speak of it “being time” for such a strategy….you may be spot-on. I don’t know how to measure such matters. I do know that while protestors are hitting the streets en masse, I will be making donations to legal funds that support them and writing leaflets and tacking them up on walls (real or cyber) in the same manner as the “Revolutionaries” did in the American Revolution One of the reasons I find this debate compelling is that I think a 20-year-old version of myself would have agreed with you and argued against me.

  14. RagnarNo Gravatar says:


    One problem I see with leaving “dead letter” laws on the books is it gives police a weapon I don’t want them to have. Imagine, for instance, there is a law which requires me to remove my hat when entering a public building. The law hasn’t been actively enforced for a hundred years, and is ignored by everyone, but it’s still on the books. If a police officer wishes to stop me, frisk me, detain me, etc. This obsolete law allows him an excuse to do that. He won’t bother to charge me under that law, bit the probable cause may still hold up when he charges me for the concealed weapon he finds during his search. I know this “shouldn’t” happen, but it DOES happen, every day. For this reason, I do try to repeal every law I can, and prevent more from being made. I get your point about legitimizing the state by participating in the voting farce, but I am a pragmatist, and anything I can do, at no risk to myself, to limit or reduce the power of the state to interfere in my daily life seems reasonable to me.