The Futility of Protests

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June 4, 2007

It's all very exciting and good for morale. You get up early, ride to the bus station, sing along with two dozen others of like mind on the journey to the big city, then march along the streets yelling slogans, waving banners and getting photographed for the evening news as part of the latest phenom. With any luck, purveyors of the opposite view will show up across the road, with a thin blue line in between; and the catcalling and jeering can be something marvelous.

Demonstration over, beer may be consumed and everyone is happy that truth has been declared and publicity earned, and the singing en route home is even more rousing--if less tuneful. Usually the demonstration will have demanded the government DO something (or STOP doing it, as the case may be) and now we will see whether those sons and daughters of bitches in the legislature will do anything about it, and send them packing come next election if they don't.

Right there is the rub. Imagine you're one of the said legislators, and suppose you're a tabula rasa, with no ideas of your own except a desire to please your constituents; something quite possible. What exactly will you do, as a result of these two contradictory demonstrations reported on that day's TV? Why, you'll have some voter research done, and find out which group will deliver you the most votes next time around, and favor it to the extent you can. Democracy is served!

It may be even easier. There may have been only one protest, with none in opposition; then, there's no need for the research. Make sure the action demanded is placed into law, and go home happy and fulfilled. Power: what a wonderful thing!

Notice then what took place: petitioners have been out in a show of force, begging Authority for a favor, and if they were numerous and lucky, the favor will be theirs. The lollipop will have been handed out. Whoever else may win or lose, Authority certainly wins; for Authority controls the lollipops. Every protester and organizer out there has either missed that critical point or else knows it but does not care.

The Vietnam War protests, of the '60s and early '70s prevailed, for government changed its benighted policy and quit. I took part myself in October 1990 in a big NYC protest march against the coming Persian Gulf War--in company with more loud-mouthed Marxists than could then be counted in Moscow . That one did not prevail, and we live still with the consequences. Protests against the interminable Round Two are warming up at present, and who knows, perhaps those will have better luck--but I bet you this: Whatever the FedGov does about them, the FedGov will continue, with power in no degree diminished and quite probably enhanced. Politicians are favor dispensers and distributors of lollipops--purchased by someone else, of course.

There is only one favor they will never grant: their own disappearance. Accordingly, the one subject for which it is totally futile to demonstrate in protest is the existence of government itself. Do that loudly enough, and they will hand out not lollipops but free accommodation where protests cannot be heard. Further: suppose (against reason) that somehow, widespread protests did persuade government to enact its own demise; could a free-market society then take its place, when large slabs of the population don't even understand what a free market is all about? Not in this universe. Not without radical re-education.

Take another example: tax protests. There was a very good one, earlier this year; "We the People" showed up in force in Washington , DC dressed up in V costumes and waving signs such as "No Answers, No Taxes!" They referred to the fact that whenever a Fed is asked what law obliges anyone to pay income tax, he cannot or will not name it--he seals his lips, provides no answer. I have seen this happen, many times; perhaps you have too. So the demonstrators wanted answers, and implied that if none were given, the income tax should no longer be enforced, and in any case, they would not pay it. Great stuff!

I don't think it will succeed, but notice what would happen if I'm wrong and it does. The FedGov would create some crisis or excuse for canceling the income tax and replacing it with some other revenue raising scam--such as a national sales tax. Be quite sure, they will not simply let go of half their revenue stream! That would be halfway to disappearance, violating the principle above. Would it be an improvement? Perhaps, to a degree; at least most of the violation of financial privacy would have ended, a not inconsiderable gain. The IRS Gestapo would be free to focus their favors on retail merchants, who would be held responsible for collecting the replacement tax, making their lives miserable instead. All the time, notice again: a big lollipop would have been delivered, to 150 million disgruntled income-tax payers . . . but the power, influence and even popularity of the government itself would not have been diminished one bit!

To those incensed by the illegal "income tax" but unmoved by calls to terminate government as a whole (and there are plenty such), that will be just fine and dandy. They will thenceforth not be our friends or allies; they will have rejoined the set who say "Look! Government works! Democracy forever!" or "See, the Constitution prevails!"

Before we go, let's consider another sort of protest; not the noisy kind with a crowd, but the individual refusal to cooperate with government, urged upon us on an STR T-shirt by the kindly but mournful eyes of Henry Thoreau and the word "DISOBEY." Can that kind be effective?

I liken such protest to prayer. In my view, it has no effect at all on the great course of events, on the urgently needed dissolution of the governing establishment--but it can have a big effect on the person protesting (or praying). And suppose there were large numbers refusing to cooperate? Yes, certainly, that could very well monkeywrench the machinery of government--and fits the simple and adequate formula for success that de la Boetie proposed: to withdraw support--but let's be very careful here, to think clearly. The argument is similar to the one against violent revolution, identified by Frances Tandy: if the rebels had enough numbers to prevail, violence would be unnecessary! And if our numbers were so large that disobeying government orders would be effective, we would not need to disobey; the withdrawal of positive support would have by itself brought about the desired collapse. So there is a question of which comes first: the chicken, or the egg.

Individual protest does affect the practitioner, though, in ways positive as well as negative; it greatly boosts his self-esteem, which is very important indeed. "Hell, no, I won't go" is a famous example from the '60s; to burn a draft card was an unforgettable act for the one striking the match, but shortage of cannon fodder didn't stop the war. In March 2007 in New Hampshire , Russell Kanning bravely refused both to get a drivers license and to enter a plea in court--rightly seeing the court as contemptible; and was thrown in jail for three weeks for contempt. Read the accounts for yourself, and decide whether such action will cause government to implode. Carl Watner, in his amazing and commendable book I Must Speak Out lauds non-cooperation even to the extent of refusing to accept government benefits; that too no doubt has a great and positive effect on the character of the refuser, but it's almost impossible to be consistent (alas, to walk down the road is to accept a government benefit), and far from helping cripple government, it is even likely to help it some, by leaving more money in its hands. As Carl also says, though, such principled acts of protest are best left to the individual and his conscience. In my view, they cannot form a strategy for terminating the State.

So as a way to abolish government with all its power and arrogance and trappings and taxes and favors and lollipops, to protest is folly; it's as bad as voting, and sometimes worse, being actually counterproductive. For us, who understand which way is up and see that livellafotoorehtsitnemnrevog, to protest can actually strengthen the enemy--it gets things wholly back to front. We need an altogether more intelligent strategy for success.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"