Among an individual’s innumerable rights, a critical few directly defend the others. You should recognize, appreciate and exercise these defensive rights, without which you will eventually lose the rest. The United States Constitution mentions at least five defensive rights, easily remembered under the mnemonic “The Five Boxes of Liberty.”* They are:
- The Moving Box—right of association, in particular territorially via migration
- The Soap Box—right of free speech
- The Ballot Box—right to a voice in your government
- The Jury Box—right to a trial by jury of your peers
- The Ammunition Box—right to threaten or use appropriate violence in self-defense
The US Constitution guarantees some defensive rights more clearly, completely, and emphatically than others. The freedoms of association and speech are declared immediately in the First Amendment, but while the courts have interpreted speech broadly and forcefully, association had to be detected as a limited penumbral right emanating from the right to assembly. Of the many possible types of associations, only “intimate” and “expressive” associations are deemed protected, and the law now imposes some associations undesired by one or more parties. Even the United Nation’s awful Universal Declaration of Human Rights managed to list the rights of association and movement explicitly. Freedom of association implies the right of secession, though this is mentioned in only a few state constitutions and not at all in the US Constitution. The right to vote runs throughout the US Constitution, even though it was recognized for blacks and women only in the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments respectively. The right to a trial by jury appears in the US Constitution no fewer than four times, first in Article III and then in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments. Finally, the right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Second Amendment, but preceded by the enigmatic qualifier “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state….” The Founders obviously put their faith in the people to defend their own rights, and distrusted elites and centralized power, but they could have been clearer in their language, in particular about the underappreciated right of association.
Though subject to debate, the sequencing of the Boxes of Liberty here is no accident: each box differs in its efficacy, cost, availability, and potential for inflicting harm. You should first defend your liberty with efficient (effective, low-cost, low-harm) methods, and only after making a reasonable (or even more-than-reasonable) effort should you resort to methods that involve force. Neither of the first two boxes of liberty entails violence, but which should you use first? In his well-known book “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” Albert O. Hirschman suggested that a dissatisfied organization member (e.g. employee, customer, pupil, spouse or citizen) has two options: leave the organization or speak out, i.e. use one of the first two Boxes of Liberty. Hirschman disapproved of the exit option, because organization members’ departure deprives the organization of the feedback necessary to reform, but, of course, members’ lack of a credible threat of exit deprives the organization of an incentive to reform. This hostility towards freedom of association continues in a more recent book by Bill Bishop, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded People is Tearing Us Apart”. Bishop shows that Americans are gathering into neighborhoods that are demographically and politically homogeneous, and he contends that this is inherently bad. Lacking daily contact with people who differ, Americans are less able to understand and sympathize with their fellow citizens. This may indeed be so, but perhaps clustering is not primitive xenophobia but a defensive reaction, an unintended consequence of well-meaning assaults on individual liberty. For example, forcing children to attend the government school closest to their homes will lead parents to carefully choose where to live. In general, increases in political power, taxation, and regulation increase the stakes in winning elections, so people are more motivated to live near their own kind so as to be on the winning side.
Freedom of association, especially its extreme form of migration, enables you to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who will be less likely to oppress you and more likely to add their voice to yours. A community of like-minded individuals is less likely to pass onerous laws, and more likely to form a sympathetic jury. You are less likely to end up in a situation requiring self-defense, but more likely to receive help if you do. You are fortunate if you already live in such a community, but what if you do not? US history is replete with migrations (the Puritans who fled Europe, the Mormons who trekked to Utah, and the southern blacks who moved north in the first half of the 20th century) and autonomy movements (e.g. the Lakota Sioux and Christian Exodus). Libertarian examples also abound, including organized migrations (notably the Free State Project, targeting New Hampshire, the Free State Wyoming project, and Seasteading) and informal clusters like Orange County in California and Las Vegas, Nevada. The ideal community would be comprised of libertarian activists—people who may not share your personal interests, but who will defend your rights out of principle. The Founders were such people, the kind you want next door. Such a community will of course prosper, attracting new migrants less interested in the underpinning philosophy of liberty, and succeeding generations will not automatically inherit respect for these values. Migration will become necessary again, in a never-ending process of re-association and creative destruction among competing governments. Unfortunately, at the scale required to escape unjust laws in a large centralized territory, migration can be hugely costly, requiring changing jobs, straining or severing ties with friends and family, and even learning a foreign language. It is not something that even relatively mobile Americans can do often.
Like the Moving Box, the Soap Box is readily available to anyone at any time, and will not harm anyone. Fortunately, freedom of speech is the most revered right in the US, interpreted so broadly as to protect flag-burning and pornography. You have ample opportunity to express your opinion and attempt to persuade your fellows. True, you may be at a disadvantage relative to rock stars and Hollywood actors, without their fame and charisma, and you may lack the raised platform of a professional journalist, but you may give it a try. Improving communications technologies, especially the web, make this increasingly easy. Exercising freedoms of association and speech both cost little at the local scale, but over large distances can be difficult and expensive, an argument for subsidiarity (maximum decentralization of government).
The final three Boxes of Liberty all risk inflicting harm. Voting, the third box of liberty, is vastly overrated and nowadays far too much faith is placed in “democracy”. Elections are held infrequently, which is good for preventing bad measures and candidates but bad for reforming existing problems. You usually have to choose the lesser among evils, with the result imposed on everyone. Given the primitive voting systems commonly used today, voting is unlikely to capture “the will of the people”, which anyway is sadly more likely to reflect personal interest rather than distributed knowledge. More important than the act of voting is participating in the process, e.g. volunteering in campaigns. It is here that you can make a significant difference.
If an unjust law nevertheless does emerge from the political process, harm is guaranteed. You can contort yourself and obey a bad law, or break it (preferably deliberately and publicly via civil disobedience) and face trial. There you will depend on the fourth box of liberty, a jury of your peers drawn from the surrounding area. If this community contains the same oppressive people who supported the unjust law, you will have little hope, though maybe just one dissenting juror will be enough to prevent conviction. Juries have the power the power to decide not merely guilt or innocence according to the letter of the law, but to declare the law itself unjust. If no one on the jury is informed of their power of jury nullification, you will have no hope at all of receiving justice. In addition to the legal costs you can expect a fine, imprisonment, forfeiture of your property, or worse. Your final recourse is self-defense, the Ammunition Box, if you choose to exercise it. Even a completely just legal system would suffer from economic limitations—the police cannot be everywhere—so you will always need to be able to defend yourself and others against criminals.
When to talk, when to fight, and when to move away? In the end you will have to decide that for yourself.
*Three boxes of citizenship: “the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box” ~Frederick Douglass, in his memoir, 1892
“There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury and ammo. Please use in that order.” ~ Ed Howdershelt, 1972, UT Arlington
Thanks to Ed Howdershelt for the concept, Richard Boddie for the reference, and Scott Bieser for the illustrations.Tweet