The democratic tradition at its best has always had those who
act on conscience in such ways that knowingly defy the immediacy
of legal regulation. These people have recognized the importance
of law but also recognized that law is in part fluid, that laws
change, that the relation of laws to civic life is sometimes dynamic
The opposite viewpoint would be the absolutizing of law which
insists that under no circumstances can a person break law, that
no situation warrants civil disobedience. I would argue that such
an absolutist view of law is a form of tyranny. Democracy by nature
is a risk that both permits and even encourages various forms
of citizen involvement. It is premised on people taking an active
role in governance and in formulating the larger social good-but
fully aware that human nature is flawed and potentially dangerous.
In particular, democracy makes room for individual conscience,
as Thoreau argued. Passive citizenry is probably a more serious
danger to genuine democracy than occasional law-breaking by well-intentioned
Democracy is, in a sense, a Pandora's Box of human volatility.
The alternative of tyranny that seeks to control all human volatility
may offer a better chance of social "order," but it
is unacceptable to the human spirit and has never proven effective
in enhancing the social good.
WILL O'BRIEN works with Project HOME, which provides housing
and support services for homeless persons in Philadelphia..