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Wet Protestors

Reasonable people make poor protestors.   It is just not a game they can win.   It is a lot like the one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.  Why?

Tea party tax protests in Washington DC on April 15, 2009 

I passed by a tax protest today.   They called it a “tea party”  after the famous tax protest in Boston.   On this cold and rainy day, maybe a thousand people showed up.   This is certainly enough to make a successful protest, but it wasn’t. They didn't have the usual protestor characteristics.

Let’s compare this to other protests.   I see a lot of them because of my business and living in Washington, so I consider myself a bit of an aficionado.  

Most protestors are well-behaved, but most protests have their share of semi-violent actors.    This means that the police have to show up in large numbers, shut down streets etc, which advertises the event, draws media attention and magnifies even a small protest.  I have seen protests of only a few dozen people magnified by the police and media attention into major events.    

Anti-globalist organizations are very good at this.   Small cores of activists break windows or vandalize property, drawing in the police.    They achieve their goal just by getting the police to show up.   Their best outcome, however, is for the police to hurt somebody, so radical protestors work hard to be provocative. That is how they get on the news and influence policy.  It is very hard to avoid becoming pawns in their game if your goal is to protect safety and property. Unreasonable people win this one.

The first protest I ever addressed was in Brazil when five guys showed up to protest our policy in Nicaragua.  I wouldn't let them in the Consulate, so they went outside to shout and carry on.  They stood at the corner in front of a fruit stand and a bus stop.  When they started to shout, the crowd buying fruit & waiting for the bus looked in their general direction.  At that time the journalist snapped a picture and the story said, "Hundreds Protest U.S. Policy."  I complained to the editor, but it didn't do any good.

The tax protestors were reasonable and the police knew it.  They didn’t shut down any streets.  There were not massive numbers of cops and I didn’t see any media.   If a tree falls in the woods.

Another thing a protest obviously needs is protestors, the more the better.  Think about who is likely to protest regularly.  People with jobs and responsibilities cannot take the time off, so they are generally out of the mix. Protests anywhere near a college campus benefit from a large number of young people w/o much to do and protests can be fun.   

The habitual protest must also be a generalist.  If you are interested in a few things and really take the time to understand them, you will be an “expert” but not a protestor simply because opportunities to protest in your specialty will be uncommon.   That is why a more-or-less professional class of protestors has developed.   They are generally anti-whatever and they form the core of most protests.   They are the ones who know the chants and they are the ones with all the cool props and costumes.   They know how to draw attention and how to provoke the police.  They also know how to get out of the way so that more casual protestors can get hurt.  It makes a much better story if a local “non-professional” gets pushed by the cops. 

As you can probably tell, I am not greatly enthusiastic about protests.   The right of peaceful assembly is an important right in a democracy, but there is not virtue in using it too much.    It is a tool and as with all tools it can be used for good or bad purposes.   Unfortunately, those wanting to create disruptions are much better able to use this particular tool than reasonable people.

Protestors highjack normal civil discourse.   They can intimidate and can magnify small concerns out of context, as I discuss above.  It annoys me when journalists cover protests almost to the exclusion of whatever the protestors are complaining about.  Television is especially guilty of this, because of its need for compelling pictures.   When you see those pictures, it is good to remember that you are watching a type of theatre.  You are almost never seeing the spontaneous will of the people.  It is almost always a powerful interest groups carrying out politics by other means.

Anyway, I don’t know what will come of the tax protest.  I am convinced that I will be paying higher taxes in the future and there is not much that can stop it.   Almost half of Americans hardly pay any Federal income tax at all and the lower 20% actually gets significantly more back in direct payments than they pay in taxes.   Taxes are supposed to pay for our common expenses (the ones helping us establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity).  The rich should pay more, but everybody should pay something.


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