Looking to Thoreau
Revisiting Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience has put me in mind of Demos' recent publication, The Liberal Republic.
Thoreau says, "There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly".
These ideas weren't new in 1849, so why, 160 years on, is it still considered radical to propose that the power of government be derived from the consent of the governed? Why is the concept of a society of empowered individuals, capable and free enough to make choices and live in the manner of their own choosing, a manifesto rather than the norm?
An interesting twist to consider is in relation to the limits of individual loyalty and responsibility to the state, and how easy it is (or not) to withdraw from society. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau imagines a state that "treats the individual with respect as a neighbour" and where those who choose to distance themselves from the State are allowed to live aloof from it. Thoreau famously 'opted out' in protest at slavery and the war with Mexico, choosing to live in isolation on Walden Pond for a year and spending one night in prison for refusal to pay his taxes (before a neighbour bailed him out).
To what extent are we, in 2009, able to 'opt out' of a society in which we do not agree with the policies of the government? What would happen if I were to refuse to pay my taxes in protest to the war in Iraq, or to live in rural isolation and refuse to accept an ID card? Clearly, we are only free to live as individuals so long as the independent life of our choosing is rooted within the community of the state.