On Philosophy

May 9, 2007

The Philosophy Of Protests

Filed under: Political Philosophy,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:00 am

Protests are a form of political expression that meet with mixed approval. Certainly governments don’t like them, because protests can force an elected government to change its position on an issue, and governments in general resist any form of outside control, even when it comes from the people they are supposed to represent. Some also feel that protests, especially effective protests, give small vocal minorities too much power. And protests are of course disruptive, effective protests can affect the economy of the country, interfere the operation of the government, and occasionally lead to violence. But despite these drawbacks I think that protests are an essential to guaranteeing that a democratic system of government remains just, meaning that in the long run they encourage harmony within society rather than interfere with it.

The problem with democracy is that it marginalizes minority groups, and allows the majority to put unjust laws into place. Now most democracies guarantee certain rights to their citizens in order to supposedly prevent these abuses. However such checks are only partially effective. It is always possible that the majority will choose to infringe on some form of expression or desire that is not explicitly protected. And if the majority is large enough it can choose to effectively ignore these restrictions, either by revoking them, fulfilling them only to the letter of the law, or simply refusing to enforce them. Effective protests correct this problem by forcing the government to put laws into place that are acceptable (or at least not protest worthy) to everyone. Such laws are more just, and hence in the long run promote harmony in society, even though the protests themselves are not manifestations of that harmony.

Of course protests are often needed in non-democratic systems as well. A government that is unresponsive and uncaring about its citizens’ interests can be motivated to do better by widespread protests. And if it isn’t so motivated those protests can easily transition to an overthrow of that government. Even under a government that is designed perfectly (meaning that the government is constructed so that it always does the best possible by the people it rule) the occasional protest may still be required. Although the laws may compel the government to do right by its citizens corrupt officials may still ignore those laws, and given that said government is the one in charge of enforcing those laws it may not be inclined to punish itself. And thus action by citizens will be required to reform or get rid of the corrupt officials.

Now not every protest ends up being effective, but simply by looking at current affairs we can see two facts. First is that protests aren’t necessarily harmful to a nation, as some might claim. And secondly that protests are sometimes necessary. An example of a modern nation in which the citizens are very active in this way is France. I hear that right now many of the French are on the streets protesting/rioting about the outcome recent election. And protests in France regularly make the news. Now admittedly many of the French aren’t thrilled with these protests. Some feel that the minority groups protesting are exercising undue influence on the government and subverting the democratic process. But these protests don’t seem to have done France much harm (minus of course the property damage). It is on par with its European neighbors, has a decent standard of living, has an impressive nuclear power gird, and so on. So whatever the protests are doing they don’t seem to be dragging the country down (unless we suppose that without these protests France would be a superpower among superpowers).

In contrast to France we have the US, whose citizens rarely protest, and when they do, do so ineffectively. (An ineffective protest is a brief one in which people march up and down waving signs for a few days, in contrast to an effective protest which involves interfering with the day to day operations of the nation, so that the concerns of the protesters must be addressed.) As a result the US is involved in an extremely unpopular foreign war that its government shows no inclination of getting out of, despite the fact that the vast majority of its citizens want the war to end; and its officials are notoriously corrupt, with new scandals making the headlines on a regular basis, but who nevertheless keep their jobs. Indeed given this it is natural to wonder why the US citizens don’t protest. Why doesn’t everyone who opposes the war simply stop working until the troops are recalled? Certainly a nearly complete shutdown of the nation would force the people in charge to take some corrective action. One possibility is that its citizens are simply too apathetic. Although they care about these issues they care more about maintaining their lives the way they are, and protesting has the potential to disrupt that. Or it is possible that what we are seeing here is a kind of collective action problem. Each person realizes that no particular action of theirs will have any noticeable effect, and thus decides not to protest. And thus no one protests. The French then must have something that the Americans have lost which allows them to overcome this problem. I hope they find it again.


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