Henry David Thoreau's a controversial theorist writing against the backdrop of 19th Century America. As an advocate of individual freedoms and limited government, Thoreau's work can be seen as a rejection of the social and political inequalities, in particular the culture of slavery, rife throughout the US at this time. Thoreau believes that all individuals should have the right to follow their conscience and that when the state restricts the conscience of any group or individual, it is the responsibility of all how are aware to speak out against this.
These ideas prove the framework around which Thoreau builds his utopia view of the state, in which the rights and beliefs of all members of society are upheld at all times. Whilst few would disagree with Thoreau's rejection of slavery and call for expanded social and political freedoms, it is important to emphasis the idealistic, at times illogical and ultimately unattainable nature of his theory. Thoreau proposes that governments tend towards perversion and abuse, before the expression of the will of the governed.
Thoreau cites the Mexican war, 1846-1848, during which a small elite group were able, due to their political influence, to extend the slave trade to new US territories, despite popular opposition. Modern western governments appears to be typified by perversion in the form of spin, the 2000 election in the US, supposedly the most democratic nation on the earth, was surrounded by controversy, corruption and error. Thoreau comments surrounding the corrupting nature of government appear relevant to today's world.
Having established this correlation between government and corruption Thoreau moves to argue that government acts to suppress the 'creative enterprise' of the people which they claim to represent. Again this appears relevant today, the huge popular opposition against war in Iraq was unheard by both the US and British governments, additionally the motivations of these two nations have often been heralded as corrupt along economic and political lines further strengthening Thoreau's case.
However, it is not these valid observations that form the basis of Thoreau's contribution; rather it is the theoretical model for government which provide the focus of criticism. What then is this theoretical model? Thoreau's believes that all men should be able to act according to their conscience irrespective of the will of the majority or the laws of society. It is from this notion of individual conscience that Thoreau builds his concept of the state.
The state should seek, not to offend or interfere with the conscience of any individual. For Thoreau when the individual finds his conscience at odds with the laws of the state and his 'creative enterprise' is restricted, that individual or any other individual aware of the injustice, should feel obliged to speak out, for Thoreau this act of resistance along lines of conscience or conviction is, paradoxically, the most patriotic of all acts, viewing such an act not as subversion but a positive step towards improving the nature of the state.
In other words Thoreau envisages the ideal state as that which does not infringe upon the inner beliefs of any of its citizens. Thoreau is not suggesting anarchy but instead a vision in which governments constantly strive to remove those features which conflict with the conscience of its members. Whilst Thoreau's argument at first sight appears appealing due to its emphasis upon individual freedom from restraint it is also highly idealistic.
The complexity and size of modern state makes it impossible for all citizens to articulate their particular grievance with the political establishment effectively. Additionally, even if the state were able to see before it the conscience of all its citizens, it would still be impossible to reconcile the vast plurality of religious, political and economic convictions that exist within the modern state.
This point is illustrated by Marx in his work in 'Marx-Engels reader' on 'the Jewish question' in which he argues that a Jew living within a Christian state can never be free as long as he remains a Jew, for his interests will inherently clash with those of the Christian state because they hold different moral convictions, for Marx this situation is reconciled via the rejection of religion in general and the universal acceptance of socialism, however Thoreau offers no universal truth that can unite the conscience of all men, rather his work implies that conflicting ideas can always be reconciled, something that is clearly not the case.
For example, the conflict between devote Catholics who consider abortions to be immoral and those who stress the rights of the mother to decide whether or not she should keep her child are two irreconcilable positions. Thoreau fails to consider the irreconcilable nature of human convictions and thus limits the ability of his theory to relate to the real political world and the day to day decisions which shape law and policy making.
Weber work 'the profession and vocation of politics' offers an alternative vision of the state which acts to highlight the questionable nature of Thoreau's theory, that adherence to the personal conscience of its citizens is the best method for a state to arrive at political decisions.
Weber argues that even the best intentions can result in bad political ends, for Weber strong government, comprised of skilful and well educated decision makers with a firm commitment to their own conscience is preferable to the relatively weak state proposed by Thoreau in which the consciences of all citizens have to be reconciled, irrespective of how irrational or unconsidered each citizen's conscience may be.
In other words political elite with specialist skills is preferable to a government that makes decisions with the intention of not offending the conscience of its citizens, especially given the irreconcilable nature of many political issues. Weber's conception of the state is not without problems, this however is not our subject matter, and instead Weber's work is useful as it exposes the unworldly idealism contained within Thoreau's theoretical vision of the state.
Thoreau's struggle against the suppression and torture of the US slave trade during the Mexican war is commendable; however the theory he used to reject slavery is not as appealing. Within today's political climate the rights and freedoms of citizens are surprised in a far more limited way than was the case when Thoreau wrote. However it is still nothing but fanciful to imagine that all citizens could follow their conscience without irreconcilable conflicts arising that in their resolution will have a winner and a loser.
Whilst it is clear that government are always potentially and often actually corruption and that the freedoms of some individuals will be restricted by the state, at least on some issues. Rather than seeking to remove these inherent problems of rule it is preferable to argue that the state should ensure that no individual, minority or majority group should be able to dominate the political agenda at all times. This grounds Thoreau's desire to maximise freedom of ones conscience from coercion within the world of modern politicians.