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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 do we need a system of government?

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 [1] 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 act as the government for the population.

Why do we need elections?

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 we expect from a government?

We shoud expect high standards - in a democracy, the standards must be those that we would choose if given the choice. So we should expect:
  • honesty
  • 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 [2].

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 favour particular groups e.g. politicians favour those who are most likely to vote for them
  • they make poor decisions, ignoring the evidence or the will of the population
  • they make decisions that are best for them personally, e.g. politicians make deicisions 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.
These are abuses of the power that was delegated to them by the population.

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 the 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 democracy police.

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 [3].

What is the role of civil disobedience in the climate crisis?

The evidence is that
  • Governments are abusing their power in making poor decisions on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Conventional methods of engagement of correspondence, petitions and marches have not made a significant impact.
Consequently many people feel
  • Civil disobedience is now an obligation, given the disastrous consequences of the present inaction.
  • Groups such as the school strikers [4] and Extinction Rebellion [5] deserve support and participation.


[1]The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau
[2]The Seven Principles of Public Life from the UK Committee on Standards in Public Life
[3]Civil disobedience and the law
[4]Fridays for Future school strikes
[5]Extinction Rebellion

First published: Dec 2018
Last updated: 11 Jul 2019