Thoreau vs. Lincoln: Two great Americans with conflicting views of how one should respond to unjust laws

What follows is my comment (final thought to 2014) to the post referenced in the above tweet. I believe that it is becoming more and more relevant.

@Tricia

This is a brilliant and “thought provoking post”. Your list of parallels between America’s “agreed upon” slave past and the current treatment of so called “Americans” abroad is interesting, relevant and (I would argue) “accurate”. That said, I think the following parallel should be added.

The “Exit Tax” (offensive if applied to anybody) may be justifiable if applied to Homelanders leaving the USA. It is completely unjustified when applied to the assets of Americans who have lived outside the USA for most of their lives. The Exit Tax is the simple confiscation of wealth because somebody doesn’t want t be a U.S. citizen. The “Exit Tax” when applied to Americans abroad is the exact equivalent to a slave in the south “buying his freedom”. If somebody can see a relevant difference between S. 877A Exit tax rules (applied to Americans abroad) and a slave buying his freedom, please, please, explain it.

“Of course the “Exit Tax” is only paid by some Americans. Lest you think of you are exempt from having to “pay for your freedom” (if you are not subject to the Exit Tax), remember that ALL Americans are required to make a $2350 payment directly to the U.S. government and must pay additional fees to “Form People” for compliance. Therefore, the direct monetary costs needed for Americans to “buy their freedom” are threefold. They are composed of:

1. The U.S. Exit Tax if applicable.
2. The $2350 (which is sure to increase) direct fee to the U.S.
government
3. The fees paid to the “Form People” (tax compliance people).

An interesting discussion of the history of slaves buying their freedom is here.

Now, somebody who disagrees with the analogy between the Exit Tax and slaves purchasing their freedom might say:

Oh come on. The slaves were, well slaves. Americans are free people. The issue is whether Americans abroad are free people or property is the point of your post. Rather than use labels, it would be more useful to examine the circumstances. The simple fact is that Americans abroad are controlled by a system of laws, regulations, threats and penalties that citizens of no other nation are subject to. Let’s call it a “Code of Conduct For Americans abroad” or “Code” or short. To make it worse, the U.S. justification is NOT based on meaningful citizenship, but based on “place of birth”. The “Code” controls all aspects of their life. It keeps them living in a “Fiscal Prison”. It puts them in a position where they must do violence to their country of residence and their families because they are controlled by the Code.

How can this happen. As I have written before, U.S. citizens do NOT have rights based on their status as “Human Beings”. Their rights and freedoms exist only to the extent that they are granted by the U.S. government and restricted by the “Code”. Your post is titled “Is an American a piece of property? Well, that may be a bit extreme (you can choose whether to be property or not), but there is NO doubt that the U.S. government believes that it:

1. Owns its citizens; and
2. Has the right to regulate all aspects of their lives.

This is true of Homelanders too. It’s just that Homelanders have been drinking “America is the greatest country “kool aid”. The one advantage to being an American abroad is that you can see what the true meaning of “American citizenship is” – and it may be equivalent to “American property”. Certainly the citizens of most other Western democracies have rights that result from their status as humans and not from their status as citizens.This means that they have rights that are greater than those rights allowed to the unfortunate souls born in the United States. The U.S. is world leader in “eroding human rights”. Note that pursuant to a FATCA IGA a country agrees to lower it’s standards of human rights. (Even a Homelander would agree with that.)

Like you I have been thinking about this.

The issue of whether Americans abroad are “Club members” or “Club servants” is explored here:

https://renounceuscitizenship.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/are-americansabroad-members-of-club-usa-or-owned-by-club-usa/

Now, if you ultimately accept the notion that Americans abroad are “property” and NOT “people”, the question becomes:

“Should one accept that one is property or NOT accept that one is property?”

Now many lawyers would say: But, it’s the law! The problem is that in the America of today:

Law has become a substitute for morality.

Clearly the treatment as “property” results from the imposition of immoral laws.

This raises the following two questions:

1. Is there an obligation to obey such immoral laws?

2. Is there (as Thoreau in his “Civil Disobedience” suggests), a duty to NOT obey an immoral law.

Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” is a great work from a great American writer. There is an analogy between FATCA and the “Fugitive Slave Act”. Thoreau opposed the “Fugitive Slave Act”.

An interesting discussion is here:

https://web.duke.edu/kenanethics/CaseStudies/Lincoln&Thoreau.pdf

and includes this excerpt that is eerily similar to the FATCA discussion of today:

Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau were both morally opposed to slavery. However, they responded very differently to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the governments of non-slaveholding states to return runaway slaves to their owners.

Thoreau responded by continuing to help runaway slaves obtain their freedom and refusing to pay taxes to the state of Massachusetts, which was compliant with the Fugitive Slave Act. In paying taxes to a government that enforces the Fugitive Slave Act, Thoreau argued, citizens become morally responsible for slavery. Consequently, only through civil disobedience can citizens remain free from the stain of slavery.

Thoreau recognized that civil disobedience might have adverse consequences: Individuals risk imprisonment, financial ruin, and ridicule, and widespread resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act might lead to civil war. However, Thoreau considered compromising over slavery in order to avoid adverse consequences selfish and cowardly.

Furthermore, he argued that if civil disobedience leads to war, the blame does not lie with those who refuse to allow themselves to become agents of injustice. The blame instead lies with slave owners and their appeasers who have attempted to force innocent American citizens to assist them in oppressing innocent people.

Lincoln, on the other hand, believed that citizens have an obligation to obey existing laws, even if they find them morally objectionable. Lincoln himself promised to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act during his first inaugural address.

The idea that citizens can choose to disobey particular laws, Lincoln explained, undermines the sanctity of all laws.

If abolitionists claim the right to disobey laws that they dislike, then other groups are likely to claim a similar right.

In particular, lynch mobs might claim that they have a right to hang African Americans who have been accused of crimes without a proper trial.

In addition to promising to uphold the Act, Lincoln discouraged abolitionists from seeking to have it repealed. The Fugitive Slave Act, he argued, was a compromise necessary to preserve the peace and stability of the Union. Its repeal would cause the South to secede, an event which would make the eventual abolition of slavery even more difficult. If the southern states succeeded in obtaining independence, Lincoln warned, they would be able to reinstate the slave trade and make treaties with Canada that would require the extradition of runaway slaves who had crossed the Canadian border.

The debate between Lincoln (it’s the law and must be obeyed) and Thoreau (it’s immoral and violates Charter rights) it’s has its analogy in the FATCA debates of today.

Thoreau was a great American writer and philosopher.

His thinking and work embodied the finest traditions of American citizenship.

Lincoln was notable for saying that the best way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it strictly.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Epilogue:

The suggestion that CBT is a modern day form of slavery is getting traction on the discussion boards. See the following Facebook threads.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/AmericanExpatriates/permalink/523849904447753/

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