Ah, American elections. As occurs perennially whenever there is a Republican victory the social air has become full of threats and claims that many left-leaning persons intend to flee the nation and go northward to our more liberal neighbor Canada. While I rarely hear similar intentions from conservatives when the left wins an election, I believe this is because the United States is already the most conservative English-speaking democracy – if we had a nearby neighbor with a shared majority language and border who held a politically right-leaning bent, I’m sure the same claims would materialize. Perhaps less so due to the increased likelihood for nationalistic patriotism among conservatives, yet I believe some would threaten to leave the nation.
The question and discussion I would like to raise is an old one (as are most of my interests and talking points); “When is it right to leave the nation?” As I hope you all shall come to see this question is more complicated than it first appears.
As the free citizens of a modern democracy we all share the right and ability to travel; this right can and occasionally does include the right to emigrate to another nation (although US citizens tend to use this right rarely). Should a citizen be dissatisfied with our political system, there are no moral challenges with the decision to leave the nation. People ought to seek to live in a state which best reflects their beliefs, values, and political thinking. At the same time, I do not believe this accounts for emigration in a time of national crisis or political turmoil. Emigration in peace and emigration in conflict are two distinctly different moral choices.
The Crito is one of several works which Plato wrote revolving around the climactic trial and execution of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. While each of the works contemplate right action (as does nearly the entire Platonic corpus), the Apology and the Crito directly address the conflict which arises when the individual is pressured by the state. I personally consider the Crito to be the first Western account of civil disobedience.
In the Crito Socrates has already been condemned to die and is being urged by his longtime friend Crito to take this one last chance to escape into exile (his death is told poignantly in the Phaedo). Socrates would be breaking the law in escaping, but not necessarily breaking custom – one of Crito’s concerns is the public opinion of the friends of Socrates if he dies and it would be perceived that they made no effort to help him escape. The dialogue implies that he was condemned to death, but that the people of Athens may not have expected him to actually be executed. From historical documents, it seems that this flight into exile was not uncommon for persons with the means to do so.
In the last portion of Socrates’ reply he engages in imaginary conversation with the Laws of Athens, which are outraged that he and Crito would consider violating them even to escape an unjust death. Socrates has been found guilty under the laws via the surrogate of the people as judge and jury, and he has failed to persuade them otherwise. From the point of view of Socrates (and eventually his friends and students – presumably Plato as well) he may act as seems right to him, but if the state chooses to punish him – even with death – he must submit. Several reasons are given why he must respect the decision of the laws; the right to leave prior to legal action, exile as an optional penalty, and the care and education which the city of Athens has provided to him are among them. The ultimate reason that Socrates cannot justly flee the city and the unjust verdict is that when “the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and trampled upon by individuals” the city cannot stand.
Duty to the city – to the state – was an important virtue to the political mind of Classical Greece and is particularly prominent in Plato’s work. What we in the modern age owe the nation by contrast is thought of infrequently; we may praise J.F.K.’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” but I witness very few truly following it. We don’t vote, we don’t want to pay taxes (although we usually do anyway), and most of us do not seek to serve the nation as enlisted men and women or as elected officials. Granted, the notion of a modern nation-state would be far from the Greek mind where the largest political body a given person would usually interact with was the polis. At the same time the loss of our feeling of loving duty to the fatherland is a tragedy in my eyes. It would be in Plato’s as well, to judge by the words of Crito‘s Socrates.
One of the highest duties of the citizen is to be lawful and to support the laws (the highest is to hold the laws accountable to Justice). I make no claim that we have the most perfect laws or system of government (although I do think that the United States Constitution continues to be one of the most well-written political documents), but I do believe that we all have a strong duty either to persuade the government to have better laws rather than simply subvert the laws by disobeying them and seeking to evade the consequences.
Leaving the nation following the election of Donald Trump is treasonous. Not legally, but morally; not to a particular person, leader, or politician, but to the laws and customs of this country from which we have all benefited. It is the political and moral equivalent to claiming that the laws do not matter if we as citizens do not wish to abide by them, because to leave the state following an election which has an unfavorable result is to treat that result as being invalid – it breaks the implicit contract of the democratic process.
I think this argument is particularly important to consider in wake of how the most recent election’s results came about; it is currently a source of great tension and dissent nationwide that Mr. Trump won the Electoral College, yet lost the popular vote. I have no qualms with recounts in narrowly-won states – in fact, I think a system for automatically triggering a recount upon some specified small margin within counties would be wise as a guard against error. However, the Electoral system which the Founders set in place and which remains in use to this day has been the law of the land – and to seek to subvert and bypass that law simply due to dissatisfaction with the outcome of the election is to betray the democratic duties of being a citizen.
Does that mean that those who dislike the Electoral College should not seek reform? Certainly not! While I think the Electoral College is likely for the best – especially if it meant districts would vote for electors they personally knew and trusted to make the presidential vote, rather than being merely a representative formality – I do encourage citizens who would prefer the popular vote to make their voice heard for reform. As a democracy, we function best together when each person makes their case and voice heard. This must be done with respect shown to our duties as citizens and without subverting the laws of the land due to individual opinion.
To flee the nation is to subvert our democratic process; it is like responding to the laws “Yes, this man has been elected president in accordance with you; but I don’t like this, so I no longer shall seek to be lawful.” Leaving the nation following a lost election is to behave as if the laws governing that electoral process are powerless – especially if you participated in the election. If you didn’t, you’ve already failed in your duty as a citizen (even those who wrote in Mickey Mouse are better citizens). If you hold issue with our present democratic process, you ought to either pursue reform or seek out a land which better reflects your beliefs.
We all tend to take the decision of where to live for granted. As I noted at the beginning of this article, I believe this choice is a moral issue of deeper complexity than it first appears. I, for one, would not be capable of making the conscious decision for martyrdom which Socrates makes in the Crito and which other civil leaders have made throughout history through civil disobedience. If our government sought to execute me, I would make the (immoral) choice that so many others make in that situation and flee in a heartbeat. I am not a moral man; not by my own criteria, and I would owe the laws a deep and profuse apology. My line is my life, and for many others it is the same. I include myself in the category of those to be criticized with willingness to subvert the laws, and a failing to do a citizen’s duty.
Think about who you are. Think about where you live, and what values that place, that nation, that people embody. Should you be somewhere else? What change can you make in the political world around you to persuade the laws to better reflect your beliefs? These are the questions I implore you to consider before running away to Canada just because a cheeto won the United States presidency.
You can get a copy of the Crito here as a free eBook, translated by Benjamin Jowett. I think it’s a decent translation, and it’s the one I used in thinking about this article.