Effective Illegalism

There is a dimension of imagination beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. There’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop, SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD brings you a horrifying vision, of a future where CRIME is LAW.

You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. Witness a theoretical argument. A friendly debate around a simple issue: can a human being uphold society by breaking the law? It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen, it’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen. But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.


Podcast Transcript

Transcript of the second half of the 19th episode of the effective illegalist podcast, Glory Glory Hallelujah

wellogro: Welcome back to Glory Glory Hallelujah, a podcast about doing great crimes.

This is part two of the transcript of my interview with Scarpia, dugong_narwhal, and the author of the blog AD Ancien Hal Unsung, three leaders of the effective illegalism movement, as much as it has leaders.

How do you Handle a Big Tent?

wellogro: Something I’ve always wondered about is, how do you keep your big coalition together? Effective illegalism attracts lots of liberals and conservatives and puts them in the same community together, how do you keep that from blowing up? 

dugong_narwhal: Well the nature or, the fact that we’re all coming here together to do the same thing really helps, and the thing we’re coming together to do is of course to find the best crimes, and then execute on them. That really helps people stay focused — we’re always starting from a place of, what laws do we all think are bad, bad for us and bad for society? And then we say, ok, what are the best, safest ways to break those laws? 

It’s definitely interesting how people who would have a hard time agreeing on what laws to pass have very little trouble agreeing on what laws to break

ADAHU: Plenty of subcultures have their own versions of illegalism, and it’s surprisingly easy to draw them together into a syncretic vision of civil resistance. A great example is the queer community, which has the slogan Be Gay, Do Crime. In the beginning this was more of a joke, but younger queer people who were raised with the slogan have come to see it as a totally natural idea, and are ready to commit crimes that they think are important. 

Scarpia: It’s kind of strange, I think most subcultures used to have more explicit norms about civil disobedience. Punks used to fight cops, stoners obviously are a subculture centered around an illegal hobby. Being gay was itself illegal in many parts of the US until quite recently, and is still illegal in some countries. Folk and country singer-songwriters recognize that it can be necessary to take justice into your own hands in response to domestic abuse — for example Carrie Underwood’s Church Bells or The Chicks’ Goodbye Earl

Modern subcultures for some reason tend to be much less explicit about their willingness to resist, but it’s still there, and you can get people to see eye-to-eye pretty quickly when you point out their shared beliefs.

ADAHU: Yeah, some people think that the law-and-order divide is inherently liberal versus conservative. These people have clearly never seen an episode of Dukes of Hazzard. The main characters drive a Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag on the top that is literally named the General Lee, and their constant foe is the sheriff and his officers. Almost every episode ends with the police cars crashing and the cops being embarrassed. Conservatives don’t have an inherent alignment with the law any more than liberals do.

dugong_narwhal: The fact that most people are pseudonymous really helps. You might be a socialist sitting across the table from a neoconservative, but because he goes by “Brass Trash” and you go by “Piranha1980”, you don’t know that you theoretically are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Both of you think that we should have good public infrastructure, so both of you are pretty happy with the idea of breaking into the subway system at night and doing illegal maintenance on the trains. 

Scarpia: And those pseudonyms may not be fixed to a particular political viewpoint. Lots of people outside the movement don’t understand this, but many pseudonyms are multiple different people. Some pseudonyms are four or five different people. We call this DPR’ing.

wellogro: DPR?

ADAHU: Dread Pirate Roberts.

wellogro: Oh! [laughs]

Scarpia: There are even some pseudonyms that were never attached to a single person in the first place. Like, I’m pretty sure Malus was never one guy, I think it’s a pseudonym that lots of people have picked up and used at one time or another.

dugong_narwhal: Yeah, at the conference in Chicago a few years ago I saw three different people whose nametag was “Unofficial Entire Society”. All of them claimed not to know that there were other people using that moniker at the conference. Well, two of them did, the third threw her drink at me and started running. 

wellogro: Don’t people get upset at other people using their pseudonym?

Scarpia: Not really? Most people figure that it’s added protection against anyone trying to find out who they are. If someone borrows your pseudonym, it makes you that much harder to track down, and it makes it harder to pin any specific crimes on you.

It’s also just considered bad practice to use someone’s pseudonym without permission. But if you do, it’s mostly seen as a complement. 

ADAHU: I’m more concerned about lack of accountability. One nice thing about using consistent pseudonyms is that you can develop a reputation, even though it’s not attached to your legal name. That helps us figure out who to trust, who’s a reliable thinker and planner, and who might be bad news. If people share pseudonyms, that can undermine the trust we’ve built.

Scarpia: This is something that concerns me too, but overall I have to say it hasn’t been much of a problem. Some pseudonyms are reliable and develop a positive reputation. Some pseudonyms are unreliable — maybe because they’re shared by a large group, maybe it’s one unreliable person, who knows — and develop a reputation of being unreliable. 

Roots of Effective Illegalism

wellogro: One thing I’m really curious to get from this group is the long-term perspective. I only became aware of effective illegalism a few years ago, but all of you were part of it from the beginning, or near the beginning. What was that like, and from your perspective, where did these ideas come from? 

ADAHU: The term illegalism comes from 1900s-era anarchist movements, but effective illegalism bears no more relation to these ideas than the Gates Foundation does to Rockefeller-era philanthropy. Effective illegalists don’t generally see theft and burglary as good crimes, and most of us don’t identify as anarchists. The average effective illegalist has never heard of Clément Duval and would be appalled by his actions. It’s more that there was already a name for organized law-breaking and it stuck. You could equally have called it effective civil disobedience but I guess that’s not as catchy.

I think it was a few things coming together at the right time. People trying and failing to work within the system. People becoming disillusioned with law and order approaches, either through seeing them fail, or things like becoming disillusioned with institutions like the Supreme Court.

And of course, better access to information and connection through the internet accelerates all of this.

Scarpia: I agree it was kind of a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back thing. In the beginning, so to speak, it seemed like you could do good by straightforward methods like curing disease and educating orphans. But over time people got disillusioned. There was a sense of frustration as people started coming up with more and more convoluted plans in the pursuit of doing good. It started feeling like it shouldn’t be this hard to make a positive impact on the world. 

One good example is charter cities. Frequently the idea with charter cities is that government regulation wherever you live sucks, so you need to start your own government somewhere else. You might want medical reciprocity, where you let doctors from developed nations like Japan and Britain practice medicine in other countries. Or you might want drug approval reciprocity, where any drug approved by the EU is also approved wherever you live. The US doesn’t have either of these very reasonable policies, so some people tried to make charter cities which did have these policies. But alternatively, you could just break the rules and not need to go through the trouble of building a whole new city in Honduras.

There are a lot of stories like this, not just charter cities and not just in medical policy. Eventually we were like, it would actually just be easier to break the law.

Thomas Kuhn thought of paradigm shifts as a process that kicks in as more and more junk piles up. Contradictions to the current paradigm come in, someone happens to be in the right place at the right time to notice, everyone agonizes over them for a while, and at some point the friction becomes unbearable and everything does some inversion deemed impossible by consensus wisdom and now you have a new paradigm. Something similar happened with efforts to make the world a better place. Enigmas related to government regulation piled up higher and higher, people gnashed their teeth for a bit, tried to make some new cities, and then someone (no idea who) was like, well why don’t we just break the law instead? And effective illegalism was born.

dugong_narwhal: There’s a certain kind of person who finds working within the system really seductive. These people are happy to toss around clever ideas and play within the rules, and get a real kick out of looking for loopholes and workarounds. This describes a lot of programmers and engineers, but also like academics, or even just people who did well in school.

It takes a certain kind of shock to break these people out of their, I dunno, law-addled haze or whatever. And I think it took time because we had to wait for many individual stories, individual cases of these people to have good ideas about how to work within the system, and see their clever ideas for workarounds and loopholes get crushed by mindless bureaucrats and inconsistently implemented regulations. Lots of us, myself included, had to get our faces pressed up against the pavement before we realized, oh, it doesn’t matter how clever I am, working within the system actually doesn’t work for some of these problems! And it just took some time for a critical mass of people to have that experience. 

ADAHU: Despite what we’ve said, and I agree with the others, it’s not all internal. There’s also an element of how it takes some time to realize that there are actually many laws that nobody cares about, that aren’t actually enforced that strictly, et cetera. 

It takes a few rounds of seeing someone do a crime, thinking “oh shit they’re gonna get busted”, and then watching how no one even shows up to pretend to enforce things, to realize how free you actually are. It lets you realize the degree to which no one else actually cares about that law, so why would you follow it?

dugong_narwhal: Yeah, being in trouble is a fake idea.

Scarpia: In the early days, before effective illegalism was really a thing, people were really concerned about immigration. And why not, the American immigration system is famously borked. You remember the effort to bring microchip manufacturing back to the US back in 2022? Everyone wanted it to happen, but the immigration red tape almost killed it, because foreign workers with the required skills almost weren’t allowed to stay. It almost didn’t happen.

Congress should fix this problem, and they could, but they don’t. I don’t even care why they don’t anymore. People started noticing that directly helping immigration can be a huge intervention, and that one way almost any American can help is by marrying a foreigner to give them a green card. Immigration officials do keep an eye out for this sort of thing, but security is tighter in some places than in others, and with some planning it’s not hard to convince them you’re a real couple. Or if you’re more scrupulous, Americans can go out of their way to date and actually marry foreigners, it ends up having the same effect.  

If you think immigration is important, it doesn’t take much math to see that you can have 100x the impact by marrying a foreigner than by donating to congress or lobbying. Then it’s just a question of the tradeoff against breaking the law, or bending it really, marriage isn’t illegal. Most of us decided the exchange rate was pretty good. 

Why Start with Crimes?

wellogro: This question might be too simple but I figured you all would have interesting thoughts on it, but why start with illegal actions? What would you say to someone who asked you why you don’t start with legal methods in your quest to make the world a better place?

Scarpia: There’s an element of, not to sound too cliché but I’m serious, there’s an element of freeing your mind. Once you let go of the block of breaking the law, all sorts of things become possible

In fact I think that we do the most good in places where it’s sort of ambiguously illegal, but most people wouldn’t, pardon my bluntness, most people wouldn’t have the guts to do this if they hadn’t already developed a stomach for doing things they know are against the law. Is it illegal to call a restaurant and tell them that the homeless guys out front are undercover cops on a stakeout, and the restaurant should give them free coffee? I don’t know, but I think it’s a good idea.

dugong_narwhal: Also funny.

Scarpia: I’m not even against laws in general. It’s an issue of, the dose makes the poison, right? A community with some laws is good, because they make for, you know they provide an agreed-upon standard. But too many laws is paralytic. There’s a dose where it stops being good for you, right? If I want to do medical research at home, that might be illegal. Or actually, worse, I may not know if it’s illegal or not. And how do I find out? You can pay a lawyer but often they tell you that no one knows — you just have to try it and see if you get sued or arrested. 

Or if I see someone getting mugged, or I’m in a restaurant and someone is having a heart attack and I could step in and perform CPR. I don’t know if it’s legal or not to step in. So we go from having these brave pro-social impulses of, I should help, I should get involved — the sort of thing I think we should praise and encourage — to a system where we’re always second-guessing ourselves. Will there be consequences if I save this person’s life? 

Sometimes there are specific carveouts, like Good Samaritan laws for administering naloxone to someone who overdosed on opioids, but these laws vary between states and have limited scope. Regular people aren’t necessarily going to know exactly what the law says most of the time. The average American is at a 7th or 8th grade reading level, so even if they do look up the exact language of the relevant statutes, there’s a good chance they’ll have a hard time interpreting something that was written by a committee of lawyers who spent 19+ years in formal schooling.

So the negative effects on society are much larger than they appear, because living in a society with too many laws makes everyone anxious and cautious, instead of being bold problem-solvers who are willing to take risks to improve the world. 

dugong_narwhal: I agree with all that, and also, who says we didn’t start with legal methods? You’re not seeing where we started out, you’re seeing where we ended up. And for my own part I’ll say I still do a lot of things on the legal side to improve my community. I just reached a point where I realized that if I wanted to do the MOST good I could, I would have to start committing some crimes.

Scarpia also makes a great point about how difficult it can be to figure out whether an action is “legal” or not to begin with. I’d add that there are also many cases where something isn’t exactly a crime, it’s more of a loophole. In some states where you’re allowed to grow weed for personal use, you can’t sell what you grow but you can give it away. If you sold, say, an overpriced sticker or charged for your time as a “consultant” and then include some weed or a clone as a gift with purchase, that’s not really illegal. So the attitude of effective illegalism isn’t just saying here’s a clear line in the sand and I’m choosing to cross it, it’s also about recognizing the extent to which the law is not only selectively enforced but also just not that clear to begin with. 

ADAHU: I find questions about “working within the law” really frustrating. The crimes effective illegalists commit are much less extreme than the crimes committed by folk heroes like Zorro or Robin Hood. If you think robbing from the rich to feed the poor is a good idea, you should be on board with a lot of even less harmful crimes. For the most part we want to do things that people really strongly approve of, things the average person wants to see, and the only thing in our way is that they’re technically illegal, though often in a way where the police can’t be bothered to stop us even if they find out.

Biggest Criticisms

wellogro: Illegalism gets a lot of criticism from outside, but I feel like I don’t hear a lot of criticism from within. But you’re all in a good position to criticize, what do you think effective illegalism could do better? 

ADAHU: Our focus on American laws and the Anglosphere in general is, I think, pretty embarrassing. Countries like Saudi Arabia, just as an example, have some very bad laws that should be resisted. I understand the benefit of doing praxis in your backyard but I think we could also do more to fight unjust laws worldwide, by supporting illegalist movements in countries that are more oppressive.

dugong_narwhal: We need to try more things and take more risks. We found a few good crimes in the beginning and now we tend to just milk those same ideas over and over. But there are lots of audacious crimes out there that we haven’t cottoned on to and it’s worth taking on some extra risk to find out what they are. There are also a lot of ideas that most people in the movement think of as duds, but I think lots of them could be viable if we figure out better approaches. So yeah even for a movement that sees itself as audacious, I think we could be a lot more audacious.

Scarpia: Call me crazy but I don’t think we could be doing anything any better. This was a risky project from the start and the fact that we have had any success at all is enormously encouraging. If we can keep on at this pace for another decade, or even half this pace, I think that will be very impressive.

Favorite EI Sources

wellogro: Do you have any particular favorite effective illegalism sources — you know, blogs and podcasts?

Scarpia: Well, Honest Fiction is a long-time favorite, that should come as no surprise. I love The Wind and Stars, do you know that one? 

wellogro: No? Is it new?

Scarpia: I don’t think so. I guess it’s kind of niche. It appeals to my interest in the logistical side of illegalism. Fort Wroth is pretty new, and while the proposals they make are on the extreme side, they’re at least totally committed to nonviolence and it’s thought-provoking. I have mixed feelings about Bungle Bungle Bungle and Dark Mind of Murderous Courage

dugong_narwhal: I mostly follow longer-form blogs like Cayenne Halt Fils and Deep Gallon Oliver, also sometimes Breaking New Ground.

There’s one podcast I follow, If It’s Not Love, which is unusual for illegalism in that it is kind of a doomer podcast, but it tempers that with a focus on building community. So I guess it’s like optimistic doomer. I also liked the recent coverage from Crime 299 but I have to admit I haven’t listened to any of their back catalog.

ADAHU: Roses for Rats is a new blog a lot of people are following. Everyone thinks it’s a Flowers for Algernon reference but I think it’s actually a play on the White Rose Society. 

I also really like Fell Chaya Tennis, which takes a kind of weird tack — she doesn’t write at all about the present, I’ve noticed, only about illegalism’s past or visions for its future. I think that’s really interesting, though I don’t know why she does that or even if it’s intentional. 

I don’t know if Katya Mykula’s writing counts but I find it hugely influential. Some people have speculated that I might be Katya, which is flattering but I’m sorry to admit is untrue.

Favorite Kind of Illegalism

wellogro: Ok, to end, I want to ask you all, what is your favorite kind of illegalism?

Scarpia: I’m really happy with what illegalism has done for healthcare. This is something we mostly don’t talk about, and there are strategic reasons for that. Healthcare illegalism involves a lot of doctors and pharmacists breaking the law in ways that risk their medical licenses and other credentials, and so we don’t want to draw too much attention to the details of this success. But in the abstract I can say, we give out a lot of low-cost illegal medical care, we prescribe important drugs that people might otherwise be unable to get, and we illegally train people to treat illness and injury so that they can go out and practice medicine without a license on their own, so they don’t have to rely on us. 

But all of this is kind of palliative. It helps individual people but the rest of the healthcare system still sucks, and thousands of people die because of muck-ups at the FDA. I want to see us do even more, and I think we’re on track to actually revolutionize healthcare in the next decade. 

Here’s one example I’m very into. Biohackers with diabetes have been making their own insulin since 2015, and now illegalists are supporting similar efforts at a larger scale. The procedures to make insulin, and many other drugs and treatments, are not a mystery. Many of the patents are expired. Anyone with the right knowledge and equipment can sit down at a lab bench and make it happen. 

This country could have factories pumping out high-quality generics, except that these factories are so hard to start, that they are de facto illegal. So we say, sure, we’ll just make illegal factories then.

It’s not like there is some special juice that makes Novo Nordisk drugs safe and reliable. They’re made in a lab, with equipment you can buy on the open market, by people with specific training. We buy and use the exact same equipment they use. Our labs are set up in exactly the same ways. Our technicians are educated at the same ivy-league universities; sometimes the technicians are people we’ve poached from the pharma companies, doing the same work they did there, making the same drugs! Our safety protocols are the same, sometimes better. The only difference is we don’t have the “right” papers from the FDA. We don’t wait for approval from an authority figure before doing good. 

ADAHU: This is still a long shot but I’m optimistic that illegalism can help with the energy and climate crisis. Nuclear power is clean and safe, and while the legal side of things is perpetually tied up in red tape, there are a lot of borderline illegal and straight-up illegal things we can do to help.

Legal approaches to promoting nuclear power have not been very effective so far. People should definitely keep trying, but in the near-term we need something more direct. So a lot of us are looking for things we can do to make it easier to use nuclear power and harder to use other forms of power.

On the promotion side, we can do things to grease the skids, even things as simple as bribing officials to fast-track approvals on new nuclear plants. Can we build our own, illegal nuclear power plants and plug them into the grid? Can we fund research teams to invent new kinds of reactors? Hard to say right now, but I can tell you, people are looking into it. 

On the prevention side, we can do things to make it more costly to use other forms of power. Any time a new coal or natural gas plant is getting built, we should get in the way as much as possible. 

Blowing up existing power plants and pipelines is a bad idea. We don’t want to cause that kind of damage, and keeping thousands of people without power would be really bad for public support. But if we manage to shut down a coal power plant for a few hours every month, if we increase their repair bill by enough, we can make it so expensive to run these power plants that other forms of power look much more attractive. And there are lots of ways to increase repair costs without blowing anything up. 

This is definitely one of the hardest forms of illegalism, and I understand why many people are hesitant to support an approach that sometimes borders on ecoterrorism. But energy is really important and I think there’s a lot we can do here if we’re willing to bend the law even a little. 

dugong_narwhal: I’m oldschool, I still think intellectual property illegalism is the most exciting part of the movement. I don’t just mean pirating. It’s definitely fun to torrent a blockbuster movie but it’s probably not actually all that good for the economy. But a movement to make the de facto copyright period 20 years or so seems like a great idea. 

People should be able to profit off of their creations, so I do support copyright law in general. But I don’t think anything from before 2000 should still be under copyright.

This is one of the easiest forms of illegalism, one where we might be able to achieve complete victory, even in the face of government interference. Most people already support it. Many people have even helped do it. Anyone who has pirated movies or music has already broken these laws. 

You could make a strong argument that people behind projects like The Pirate Bay are real early heroes of the modern illegalist movement. The most effective illegalist of the 21st century is probably Alexandra Elbakyan, who founded Sci-Hub. There’s an even stronger case for sharing research papers than there is for pirating movies — research, especially publicly-funded research, should be free immediately. 

And the roots are probably even deeper — all this is kind of a modern form of samizdat, the dissident at-home publication of censored materials.  

wellogro: Thank you all so much. As usual, I’d like to end the podcast with a short poetry reading. For today, ADAHU has selected the first stanza of Lowell’s The Present Crisis.

ADAHU: 

When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast  
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,          
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb  
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime         
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.   
    


Post from the blog Deep Gallon Oliver, August 16, 20XX 

Effective illegalism is the movement devoted to finding the highest-impact criminal methods to help other people and the world. Philosopher Katya Mykula described it as “doing for the pursuit of civil disobedience what the Scientific Revolution did for the pursuit of truth”. 

The illegalists have a global conference about once a year to touch base and discuss strategy. In the early years of the movement, this was fine and normal and no one gave us much trouble. But in recent years effective illegalism has gotten more attention and now local law enforcement and similar groups often try to, uh, interfere with the conference.

After the fiasco a few years ago in Nashville, the conference organizers have coordinated a campaign of misinformation to keep us from all getting arrested. So apologies to those of you who ended up in Baltimore, Fort Worth, Stockton, or Tempe. The actual conference this year was in Spokane, WA. Unless I’m lying to you as part of the misinformation campaign. Which I might be. 

Look at this wonderful photo I took at the conference!

The official conference theme was “Doing Crime Together”. The official conference interaction style was “pseudonymous”. The official conference illegalism level was “very”.

One of the breakout rooms had all-day career coaching sessions with Careers for Crimes (motto: “You can develop important criminal skills at your day job.”). A steady stream of college students went in, chatted with a group of coaches, and came out knowing that the latest analyses show that becoming a doctor or a pharmacist is a useful path to build crime-relevant skills, but gaining a law degree is probably less useful than previously believed. They also put out a report on their progress this year, but I got a copy and all it says is “YOU’LL NEVER TAKE US ALIVE” in 120 point font.

The theater hosted a “fireside chat” with violetfjeschl, who wore an oni mask and an oversized puffy winter jacket and never took either of them off. She’s director of the economic-growth-maximialist “Carson Wolves” group. I went in with some stereotypes but violetfjeschl started by admitting that while health codes and permits can be good, in many places the cost of starting a restaurant, grocery story, coffeeshop, or even just a barbershop are entirely beyond the means of most people. This is bad because most people need restaurants and grocery stores and would like to see more of them. She had some persuasive arguments for why overpermitting was slowing down economic growth, and how this explains why we see exceptional growth in software and other tech small businesses, which aren’t as location-limited as other small businesses and (so far) don’t face the same kinds of stifling regulations.

Her tactic is to coach local entrepreneurs in how to avoid getting noticed by regulators (turns out this is not very hard, the regulators are not driving around knocking down doors and the police usually can’t be bothered to shut down your illegal coffeeshop as long as they’re not getting tons of complaints), and give them small business loans that they wouldn’t be able to get through legal channels, since their businesses don’t officially exist.

She handled questions from the audience about whether the Carson Wolves were a gang with typical good humor, pointing out that the small businesses don’t have to pay them protection and insurance money if they don’t want to, but that most choose to, since they can’t get normal insurance or go to the police in a crisis. Personally I favor the creation of multiple extralegal insurance companies so that there can be normal market competition, and so that we don’t see these kinds of conflicts of interest.

Afterwards a bunch of us walked to an illegal restaurant a few blocks down the street, the vanguard of this brave new future, and none of us got food poisoning.

But walk a little bit outside of the talks, or linger in the common areas a little bit after you finish your box lunch (stolen from the offices of a Fortune 500 company), and you run into the shadow side of all of this. You might think that doing organized crime, even for good, is the underbelly of civilized society. Well, I’m here to tell you about the hidden underbelly of the underbelly.

Effective illegalism started with “I wonder if some things that are illegal would be good for society”. But even at this early stage, it’s gotten to some pretty weird places.

One thing I was surprised to learn is that many of effective illegalism’s most prominent public critics are themselves effective illegalists. Some reporters, an author, a major YouTuber, and a college professor whose name you would definitely recognize — all of them are big public critics of the movement, but all of them are secretly illegalists, all as part of a strategy to define the conversation. Unless I’m lying to you as part of a strategy to undermine our critics. Which I might be. 

Double agents for crime were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.

You’re probably not surprised to hear that there were sessions on how to avoid getting arrested, how to talk with the police, and how to get police to support the movement. But you might be surprised to learn that most of these sessions were led by cops. In fact, one of the sessions was a police officer lecturing on all the laws that the police would never bother to enforce, and another guy gave a talk about all the great, prosocial crimes he was able to do as a police officer. 

Crimes for Cops was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.

I got to talk to a number of people who teach their niche skills to others for illegalism purposes. Some of these are the kinds of skills you would expect, though some of them are kind of strange, like the large number of graphic designers who use their professional skills to forge documents in support of various high-impact crimes. And some are very strange, like the makeup and FX artists leading a disguise class on how to impersonate elected officials, or the voice actors leading a class on how to impersonate people over the phone. 

Even the FX artists were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global. But I can’t tell you about the weirdest people, they are too illegal. 

But maybe the weirdest part was no one group of people, it was the synergy. Running the conference were a bunch of (no offense) pretty boring operations and logistics people who probably do this same sort of thing for their day jobs. These people support the movement but most of them don’t commit any actual crimes for it. Next to them are conference halls full of FX artists, electrical engineers, USPS employees, and actual police officers, all leading classes on how to commit crimes related to their areas of expertise. And next to them are people like violetfjeschl, in her puffer coat and oni mask, running a crime ring that’s something between a small business grants program and an extortion racket. And somehow all of these people are happy to sit down and work together and solve problems as if they are all no different from one another. And I think that’s beautiful. 

I got in a chat with one of the volunteers running the conference, and told him that despite finding the conference inspiring, and being excited to see so many different kinds of people working together, I also felt kind of guilty for being something of a bystander to the movement, and not doing more crimes.

He responded with the official line, that effective illegalism is a movement of ordinary people, that anyone can contribute, and that resistance to unjust laws starts in the mind and the heart. That not everyone has to be a saboteur or a career criminal. That a commitment could be something more like just helping people out at your job by showing them all the loopholes, pirating music, or even just by not being a narc. 

In fact, his philosophy was that you should do exactly what you feel like all the time, and not worry about the crime aspect at all, because if you look hard enough at the things you think are unjust in the world, and figure yourself out and commit to resisting evil where you, personally, see it, you’ll just naturally become an effective illegalist.

And then he knocked me down and stole my wallet. Just kidding. Then he invited me to help out with [CRIME PLAN REDACTED] which they were planning for that afternoon. And I realized I could either sit around and feel sad and cynical and depressed about the suffering in the world. Or I could go out, break some laws, and make the world a better place.  


Post from the illegalist blog High Potential

When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.”

Why hasn’t effective illegalism had our Rosa Parks moment yet?

You first heard about Rosa Parks in public school (sorry, homeschoolers). Back in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, got arrested for it, and her act of defiance became a symbol of the civil rights movement.

What you may not know is that her act of civil disobedience and the legal battle around it were somewhat strategic, and the civil rights movement rallied around Parks because they felt she was the ideal defendant to attract public sympathy. Per Wikipedia

Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, and she helped inspire the Black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year. The case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle resulted in a November 1956 decision that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Parks was considered the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws, as she was seen as a responsible, mature woman with a good reputation. She was securely married and employed, was regarded as possessing a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy. King said that Parks was regarded as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery”.

This was a huge success in favor of civil rights, I mean clearly, since we are still talking about it today. So for effective illegalism, a movement that in theory should not be afraid of breaking a few laws, why have we not had our Rosa Parks moment yet?

I think there are a couple of reasons.

Effective illegalism tends to fight against problems, not against laws. Obviously we are happy to break or bend laws, but we target problems like the housing shortage or prescription drug costs, and the laws that we break are often not the laws that cause these problems. In comparison, Rosa Parks broke a specific law (Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City code), and eventually (indirectly) got the law declared unconstitutional. 

Part of this is a sign of the times. In 1955, there were big, specific laws that were clearly unjust. Today, we live in a web of many small laws that are all kind of nebulous, which are often harmless-looking on their own, but which collectively are unjust. So I accept that it’s gotten harder, but we can still find laws to fight. 

If effective illegalists want to see this kind of success, we may want to consider more targeted acts of civil disobedience, where we break specific laws we think are wrong in the hopes of either showing how foolish they are, or creating court cases to challenge them directly. This is different from our normal approach of ignoring the laws to do good directly; but probably we should do some of both. We should fight unjust laws and should be ready to do that forever, but it would also be great if those unjust laws went away.

There’s also the issue of, well, effective illegalists are not a naturally sympathetic group. Most of us have real disdain for authority and would not make ideal plaintiffs. And we are not facing down laws as comically and obviously unjust as bus segregation, where black riders were required to pay at the front of the bus, then get off the bus so that they could go around and board at the back, and where drivers would often pull away and leave riders behind even though they had paid their fares. This is some real obvious kick-the-dog nonsense I would feel embarrassed to include as a fiction writer, but it really happened.

Even so, some of us are more sympathetic than others, and there are certainly many laws out there that are comically evil, even if they’re not quite on the level with bus segregation. I think we can do more to focus our efforts on these high-leverage issues and put sympathetic faces to the costs of these horrible laws.

Charities make good use of putting specific faces to mass tragedies

But ultimately I think the main reason we haven’t had a Rosa Parks moment comes from the fact that effective illegalism, at least so far, has focused on crimes that are “safe”. What I mean by “safe” is crimes where it is unlikely for us to end up arrested. We mostly commit crimes that are only technically criminal, crimes that no one ever bothers to enforce, or crimes where we’re very hard to catch. This does make a lot of intuitive sense, because most of us do not want to get arrested. It makes sense to want to get away with these crimes. 

Because of this focus on safe crimes, very few of us have been arrested. Most people see this as good, as success for effective illegalism. They think this is a design criterion, that our progress can be measured by not only how many great crimes we do, but how many great crimes we can get away with. 

But some things can only happen if we take bigger risks, and are open to sometimes getting arrested. I’m glad that few of us have gotten pinched or gone to jail. But we’re hamstringing ourselves if we keep playing things totally safe. 

And SOME things can only happen if we get arrested intentionally. 

Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Parks later said about being asked to move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till – a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a White woman in her family’s grocery store, whose killers were tried and acquitted – and I just couldn’t go back.” Blake said, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.'”

I wonder if some people misunderstand the Rosa Parks story. 

Some people would say that in today’s media environment, more outrage is bad. People are outraged enough, and even if we come up with a cloyingly sympathetic story, more outrage will be lost in the noise. There’s a new scandal every week. 

But I don’t actually think Rosa Parks’ example sparked people to outrage. I think it sparked them to change their mind, and it sparked things like a bus boycott. It shifted people from emotional outrage to something people could actually do about it. 

One thing we should aim to do as illegalists is change people’s minds about specific laws, and about the law in general. Think about a potentially sympathetic white person in 1955 Alabama hearing about Rosa Parks. If a black teenager had refused to give up her seat, they would say, that kid needs to learn respect for authority. If a black man with a criminal record had refused to give up his seat, they would say, these criminals will flaunt any law. But Rosa Parks defied any excuse the mind would naturally reach for. A white voter with an ounce of sympathy in their heart will have to look at this case and say, well she did break the law, but she didn’t deserve to get arrested for it. Maybe that law is wrong.  

It’s also worth noticing what the movement did to change black people’s minds, about how much to fear and respect the law. Martin Luther King Jr. had this to say about his eventual arrest in the course of the boycott: 

At the jail, an almost holiday atmosphere prevailed. On the way Ralph Abernathy told me how people had rushed down to get arrested the day before. No one, it seems, had been frightened. No one had tried to evade arrest. Many Negroes had gone voluntarily to the sheriff ’s office to see if their names were on the list, and were even disappointed when they were not. A once fear-ridden people had been transformed. Those who had previously trembled before the law were now proud to be arrested for the cause of freedom. With this feeling of solidarity around me, I walked with firm steps toward the rear of the jail. After I had received a number and had been photographed and fingerprinted, one of my church members paid my bond and I left for home. 

Another thing we should aim to do is to inspire people to take action. Three days after Parks’ arrest, local leaders started planning a bus boycott, and four days after Parks’ arrest, the boycott started. It ended up lasting 382 days. Black riders made up something like 70% of the bus company’s ridership, so the transit system’s revenue fell overnight. Was this illegalism? Sort of — the city used various methods to try to quash the boycott. They eventually got to the point where they treated it as illegal:

[Martin Luther King Jr.] and 88 other boycott leaders and carpool drivers were indicted for conspiring to interfere with a business under a 1921 ordinance. Rather than wait to be arrested, they turned themselves in as an act of defiance.

King was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 386 days in jail. He ended up spending two weeks in jail. The move backfired by bringing national attention to the protest. King commented on the arrest by saying: “I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.”

So when I talk about finding or creating sympathetic examples, I don’t just mean examples to stoke the fires of outrage. We certainly don’t need more of that. I mean examples that will change people’s minds about what is right and what is wrong, even if only a little. And I mean examples that will motivate people to actions, things like boycotts, or maybe to becoming illegalists themselves.

Or maybe the truth is that effective illegalism doesn’t need a Rosa Parks moment. We’ve been pretty successful so far flying under the radar, maybe that’s the right approach for people like us. I tried to explore what a Rosa Parks moment would look like for us, but it’s also possible that this is just a different kind of movement than civil rights.


The Crime Accelerator, a Washington Post interview with Jan Gold

WaPo: Today I’m speaking with Jan Gold, a prominent podcaster and spokesman for the movement that calls themselves effective illegalism, a movement whose unofficial slogan is, “Do the Best Crimes”.

Gold: I wouldn’t really call myself a spokesman. I’m not an effective illegalist. Most of them don’t really like me, in part because I do things like talk to the press, which they don’t love. But they do tolerate me. I’m more like an anthropologist.

WaPo: How would you describe the movement?

Gold: Effective illegalism is a group of people from all walks of life who have come together to find ways to improve society. Their logic is that all the legal ways to improve society have already been tried, so the remaining options for making a real difference in the world will all be things that are technically illegal, but morally good, even righteous. So they spend a lot of time figuring out which kinds of illegal acts would do the most good, and then if those acts are feasible, they go out and commit those crimes.

WaPo: Many people have called this approach misguided. After all, the crimes you commit are illegal for a reason.

Gold: Of course these actions are all illegal for a reason, but that reason isn’t always that they’re morally wrong. Sometimes they’re illegal because of a technicality. Sometimes they’re illegal to protect a corporation’s financial interests. Most often, I think, good ideas are illegal because our legislators are not very good at writing laws. 

I don’t think breaking the law is wrong — I care a lot more about whether my actions are smart, just, and responsible, and whether they avoid being treacherous, destructive, and evil. 

WaPo: What do you say to people who are concerned that effective illegalism is a breeding ground for anarchists who want to destroy the government? 

Gold: Effective illegalism does attract a lot of anarchists and libertarians, but that’s mostly because anarchists and libertarians are already coming from a place where they understand that the government sometimes passes laws that are not in the best interests of the public. But anarchists are still a minority, since there are so few of them to begin with. We attract progressives, conservatives, evangelical Christians, environmentalists… we even attract a decent number of LEOs.

WaPo: LEOs?

Gold: Sorry, law enforcement officers.

WaPo: Why would police support a movement to break the law? 

Gold: The police have a better understanding of how the law is actually enforced than most people do. They know that enforcement is often arbitrary, that laws can contradict other laws, or even contradict themselves. They routinely come face to face with choices where they can either choose to enforce the law as it’s written, or do the right thing. For many of them, this is a huge part of their job. Different police officers take this differently, but most of them tend to develop, let’s call it, a practical approach to the law.

All that, but also, police officers are regular people and have the same problems regular people do, so they support effective illegalism for the same reasons that regular people do. 

If you find a police officer with diabetes — or if you find a police officer whose parent or, even more, whose child has diabetes — and give them low-cost, illegally-produced insulin, you end up with an ally for life. They look after that illegal insulin-production operation like their life depends on it, because sometimes it does. 

And not just police, mind, lots of government workers are effective illegalists. Partially because seeing the functioning of government radicalizes them; partially because being on the inside of the government gives them more opportunity to bend the law. You’d be surprised how many IRS workers end up seeing the injustices in tax law and coming to effective illegalism to find a way to make a difference. 

WaPo: The effective illegalism movement is dominated by people who go by monikers like shaman_ist and mariopoker6969. Why are effective illegalists so afraid to use their real names? 

Gold: Well, first off, many of them do use their real names, especially people who intentionally get arrested to draw attention to certain causes, as part of their illegalism. People like Shaune Bowman, Ben Jones, Leopold Lee, and Layla Steen Finch all publicly admit to being illegalists, though I suspect most or all of them also use pseudonyms. But the obvious answer as to why many of them don’t use their legal name is that they don’t want to be arrested. 

We also find it kind of facile to describe this as “real names”. Just because it’s the name the state knows you by doesn’t make it your real name, it just makes it your legal name. And you know how we feel about laws. 

WaPo: But the use of publicly-known names encourages accountability. Shouldn’t people face the consequences for their actions? 

Gold: Again this seems pretty facile. I’m glad that that Adolf Eichmann faced the consequences for his actions, but what he did was legal, at least in the country he did it in at the time. I don’t think Harriet Tubman should have “faced the consequences” of her actions, even though what she did was illegal in the United States at the time.

We can have a more sophisticated moral compass than just “is it currently legal or not” — you know, the kind of moral compass that lets us condemn genocide and applaud the abolition of slavery. That seems like a good idea to me. 

WaPo: Isn’t this a movement that glorifies and encourages young people to become criminals? 

Gold: One of the things that most people don’t realize about living in a legalist society like ours is that, whether or not you realize it, you are already a criminal, even if you’re not prosecuted. 

Ayn Rand wasn’t right about everything, but she was right when she said that when there aren’t enough criminals, the government makes them. So many things are declared to be a crime that it becomes impossible for us to live without breaking laws. 

We’re not even just talking jaywalking. Transport your guns wrong? That’s a felony. Transport your legal, prescription drugs wrong? That’s a felony. Share your prescription drugs with your wife? That’s a felony.

I would say that effective illegalism glorifies some criminals, people like Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t think it glorifies muggers or arsonists.

WaPo: Many people find the idea of any organized crime to be very unsettling. Won’t your movement eventually descend into violence?

Gold: Most people conflate crime and violence, but of course not all crime is violent crime, and in general effective illegalists think that violent approaches are a bad idea. It’s not like violent crime is generally committed by strangers, either, most violent crime is committed by people you know

We don’t totally rule out violence because there are some historical cases we can point to where we think violence was justified. The American Revolution was an armed uprising. The Civil War was fought in part to abolish slavery. Even Ghandi said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”

But we also don’t think violence is a good strategy in most cases, in part for the reason you say. People don’t like violence and for the most part don’t see it as justified, outside of cases like self-defense. 

Part of what will make effective illegalism work in the long term is the fact that the public is naturally sympathetic to our cause. Solving problems with nonviolent approaches tends to get us even more support. And outside of some rare extreme cases, violence would turn people off. So we almost always try to avoid violent crimes. 

WaPo: You think the public is sympathetic?

Gold: Sure. If you talk to most people, they care about whether or not their neighborhood is safe, whether they can get affordable healthcare when they need it, whether they have access to things like food and water and reliable housing and transportation, stuff like that. 

They don’t really care if the things that get them these things are technically legal or illegal. In fact, almost all of them have experience with pointless governmental red tape, and most of them share the intuition that poorly-made laws are keeping them from having the kind of health, security, and opportunity that they need. This is a feeling that cuts across class, across income brackets, and across the political spectrum. Most people are afraid of the law, but when they see you breaking a specific law in a way they think is moral and that clearly is a benefit to them and their neighbors, they like it.

WaPo: Why commit crimes instead of working within the system?

Gold: This is a false dichotomy. We can and should do both. In the civil rights movement, people broke unjust laws to demonstrate how unjust they were. They also tried to overturn those laws through the normal, legal channels. So today, when we see a law we think is immoral, we both break it, and try to get it repealed. If we’ve had less success repealing unjust laws than they did in the 1960s, I think that says more about how legal reform has changed than about our practices. 

But sorry, that doesn’t really answer your question. The real answer is that sometimes there needs to be action right away, and working within the system is too slow for things where the consequences of waiting are serious. If Congress passes an unjust law, you can get arrested and make appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court, and maybe get it ruled unconstitutional. But that can take years, or even decades. In the meantime, everyone either suffers under the unjust law, or they go to jail. If you go to jail for breaking a law that’s later ruled to be unconstitutional, it’s not like they just let you out. If the unjust law is about medical care, for example, many people will die, because the system’s gears move too slowly. Many of these issues are too important to wait for the system to sort itself out, even if it eventually would.

WaPo: But won’t all this illegalism lead to a breakdown in law and order? 

Gold: Well, it depends what you mean by “breakdown in law and order”. 

If you mean total chaos, cannibalism, people murdering each other in the street, I don’t think that will happen, because we don’t think murder and cannibalism are good crimes. 

If you mean a world where people get the healthcare they need, where cities are safe and clean, where individual citizens work together to maintain our infrastructure — yes, I think if we’re lucky we might see that kind of breakdown in law and order, because these are all crimes that we think are good ideas. 


Excerpt from a post from the blog Half Scale Ninety

No one really knows how effective illegalism began, but I like to imagine that it started in the basement of a house in San Francisco. 

Some effective altruists were drinking and commiserating over the fact that even though effective altruism had gained worldwide recognition and was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, there were still all sorts of important problems they weren’t able to make any progress on. 

They got to talking, as effective altruists do, about the things that were getting in their way. They kept running into a lot of great ideas for progress that they couldn’t act on because some part of the idea was illegal — to do the idea and make the progress, they would have to break the law. One of them jokingly suggested that they should start a NEW movement, all about doing the best crimes, and I guess the idea stuck. 

Or you know, that’s what I like to think happened.

7 thoughts on “Effective Illegalism

  1. Charlie Sanders says:

    “It’s not like there is some special juice that makes Novo Nordisk drugs safe and reliable. They’re made in a lab, with equipment you can buy on the open market, by people with specific training. We buy and use the exact same equipment they use. Our labs are set up in exactly the same ways. Our technicians are educated at the same ivy-league universities; sometimes the technicians are people we’ve poached from the pharma companies, doing the same work they did there, making the same drugs! Our safety protocols are the same, sometimes better. The only difference is we don’t have the “right” papers from the FDA. We don’t wait for approval from an authority figure before doing good.”

    I’m not sure if this is just lack of familiarity with drug manufacturing systems coming through, but this is naïve. Rigorous third-party auditing is the cornerstone of drug safety and reliability, and regulation and enforcement mechanisms are critical to making the auditing ecosystem function.

    Like

      1. Charlie Sanders says:

        Drug companies want to make profit, which means they want to make the most profit-maximizing choices instead of the most quality-maximizing choices. The people standing in their way of cutting those corners is third-party external auditors – they come in, tour their facilities, pore over their paperwork, interrogate their personnel, and review their complaint data. If, at the end of this process, the company is found to be out of compliance with mandatory (government) regulations designed around proper manufacturing processes, the company is fined/shut down/etc.

        Throwing out regulation and public oversight means that you’re removing the part of the drug manufacturing ecosystem that fights against companies’ natural inclinations to prioritize profit over quality. I get that from a public perspective all you see is the downsides of having regulations on drug manufacturing, but they’re absolutely critical in ensuring the systemic prioritization of quality in the manufacturing ecosystem.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Marshall says:

    Interesting post. I decided to take effective altruism seriously a few years ago and have been trying to seek out and do high-consequentialist-value work since.

    When I was brainstorming what work to do, it seemed obvious to me that illegal things were likely to be good candidates, since they are obviously going to be neglected by people who are scared of breaking the law, or who have deontological objections to law-breaking. Working on Sci-Hub seems like a really good example (I am a programmer so it’s in my area of expertise.)

    But when I tried to talk to other EAs about illegal ideas, it seemed like there was a real serious reluctance to take them seriously or even talk about them, that doesn’t seem to me like it was rooted in reality. I don’t really understand what’s going on. Isn’t this supposed to be the consequentialist zone where people are actually trying to do the thing?

    Like

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