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:
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.

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.:
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 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 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 - see document 30.

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

The evidence is that
Consequently many people feel that


[1]The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau
[2]United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
[3]Fridays for Future school strikes
[4]Extinction Rebellion

First published: Dec 2018
Last updated: 24 Nov 2021