Civil disobedience in a democracy: Q and A
What is democracy?Democracy is the system of government that people would choose if given the choice.
Why is a system of government needed?A state of anarchy with no laws or regulation is unpleasant and dangerous.
Whenever people gain freedom (by gaining independece from another country, or by throwing off a dictatorship), they set about writing laws and collecting money (as taxes) to fund communal schools, hospitals, etc.
What is the "social compact" or "social contract"?When free people set up laws and taxation, they are making an agreement with each other. They give up some freedoms in exchange for rights, e.g. they give up the freedom to take what they want from anywhere and anybody in exchange for the right to own property; and they submit to a system of taxation in exchange for the benefits that come from pooling tax contributions, such as education and healthcare.
This agreement is called the "social compact" or "social contract". John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau  were among the first political philosophers to write about this.
How does a government relate to the population in a democracy?In a complex society, it is impossible for the whole population to collectively make all the decisions. Most decisions need to be delegated to administrators who make the decisions as a service to the whole population.
These administrators, together with elected politicians (see below), act as the government for the population.
Why are elections needed?There has to be some way of appointing the administrators who form the government. Democracies have evolved a system of elections for choosing the key administrators who will serve the population. These elected people (the politicians) supervise the non-elected administrators (the officials); the politicians are accountable to the population for the administrators performing their role competently.
What standards should be expected from a government?High standards should be expected - in a democracy, the standards must be those that people would choose if given the choice. So expections should be:
- transparency - politicians and officials must explain what they are doing and why
- fairness - people must be treated equally without favouritism
- competence - decisions must be good decisions taking into account all the evidence, including the evidence on public opinion
- selflessness - decisions must be made for the benefit of the population, not for the benefit of the politicians or the officials making them
- protection of the weakest - via adherence to the principles of human rights e.g. as set out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights .
In the UK, these principles are included in an official document on standards in public life - see document 41.
Is democracy the same as being able to vote?Democracy is much more than just being able to vote every few years. To merely elect politicians and have no say between elections is not what people would choose if given the choice.
- People want to be asked about key decisions that affect them via consultation, and they want the results of consultations to be competently taken into account.
- People want to be able to give feedback about deficiencies in the sevice provided by the government, and have that feedback dealt with competently.
How well are governments complying with these principles of democracy?Most governments are flouting many of these principles; incompetence and corrupt practices are rife, e.g.:
- they intentionally mislead
- they make decisions in secret and have secret meetings with vested interests
- they make poor decisions, ignoring the evidence or the will of the population
- they favour particular groups e.g. politicians favour those who are most likely to vote for them
- they make decisions that are best for them personally, e.g. politicians make decisions that favour the people who have donated money to their political grouping, or that lead to lucrative employment after leaving public office
- they ignore the needs of minorities.
What is the role of civil disobedience in tackling abuse of power in a democracy?When a government abuses its power, the initial response should be correspondence, use of any complaints system, and the organising of petitions and demonstrations. If these fail, civil disobedience is justified, and may be an obligation.
What is civil disobedience?Common tactics are sit-down protests that result in the obstruction of highways or the entrances to buildings, and graffiti to publicise the message.
The point is that such actions would normally be against the law; they are deliberately carried out in order to directly oppose the abuse of power, or to cause disruption to the general population and concentrate public attention on to the abuses.
Actions should not be out of proportion to the abuse being corrected.
So people engaged in civil disobedience are not law-breakers but acting as whistle blowers.
How does the law treat civil disobedience?In the UK, the law treats civil disobedience as a special case, and participants are rarely sent to prison. It recognises that people who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action can be vindicated by history - see document 30.
How should other citizens respond to civil disobedience?Other citizens should examine the concerns of those engaged in civil disobedience and come to a conclusion as to whether the concerns are justified, i.e. whether the government is abusing it power, and then act appropriately.
What is the role of civil disobedience in the climate emergency?The evidence is that
- governments are abusing their power in not telling the truth about the severity of the climate emergency. e.g. there is evidence of systematic deceit by the UK Government - see document 106
- governments are abusing their power in making poor decisions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions
- conventional methods of engagement of correspondence, petitions and marches have not made a significant impact.
- civil disobedience is now an obligation, given the disastrous consequences of the present inaction
- groups such as the school strikers  and Extinction Rebellion  deserve support and participation.
What reactions have there been to climate-related civil disobedience?Most governments have not engaged with the protesters and some have changed the law to try to stop protests.
The reactions of citizens have been mixed. Many have not understood the reasons for the protests.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has said (see document 136)
- "Some government and business leaders are saying one thing - but doing another. Simply put, they are lying" (agreeing with what many protesters have been saying).
- "We owe a debt to young people, civil society and indigenous communities for sounding the alarm and holding leaders accountable. We need to build on their work to create a grassroots movement that cannot be ignored." - i.e. apparently supporting the protests.
|||The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/rousseau1762.pdf|
|||United Nations Declaration of Human Rights https://www.ohchr.org/en/udhr/documents/udhr_translations/eng.pdf|
|||Fridays for Future school strikes https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/events/list|
|||Extinction Rebellion https://rebellion.earth/|
First published: Dec 2018
Last updated: 13 Nov 2022