Flash Mobs, Disobedience, and Democracy

What is the role of community spaces in the democratic process? Which is better at producing good community spaces: civil society and the market, or government? Many people see community spaces as essential facilitators of the dialogue needed for a healthy democracy, and look to government to maintain such spaces. For these people, private control eliminates the fundamental character of a community space, turning it from a civic to a commercial purpose.

Naomi Klein characterizes the anti-globalization movement as about reclaiming public spaces overrun by privatization.

The spirit they share is a radical reclaiming of the commons. As our communal spaces—town squares, streets, schools, farms, plants—are displaced by the ballooning marketplace, a spirit of resistance is taking hold around the world. People are reclaiming bits of nature and of culture, and saying ‘this is going to be public space’.

At the end of July, I attended a seminar put on by the Institute for Humane Studies, where GMU economics professor Daniel D’Amico argued that the opposite is the case. Where Klein sees venal commercial interests, D’Amico sees civil society. For D’Amico, and for me, it is wrong-headed to think that the best way to maintain community spaces is to have government control them. While people do debate about government, government is not about debate. Government is about force.

This difference is sharply seen when we look at what happens when people misbehave in government-controlled “public spaces” as opposed to places of commerce.

Here is a flash mob invading a Walmart to ask Walmart to sign a euphemistically-named “community benefits agreement” before constructing stores in Washington, D.C.

Walmart Respect DC Flash Mob

Notice how protesters are allowed to enter the store, perform an elaborate (and disruptive) song-and-dance routine (I, at least, was impressed), and leave, all without interference.

Here, by contrast, is what happens if you silently dance by way of protest in a government-controlled “public space,” specifically the Jefferson Memorial.

Jefferson Memorial Silent Dancing Protest

The difference could not be more stark. In civil society, people deal with each other civilly. Government, not commerce, is the true enemy of community.

Unless time, place, and manner restrictions are imposed on speech that takes place on government-controlled property, these spaces will not serve as good venues for speech. Any speaker’s message would get lost in the din. Speech uses would interfere with recreational uses. The other side of that argument is that government is likely to use any powers it has to protect and enhance its own power, including the power to restrict speech. This holds even if such powers and restrictions seem reasonable or necessary prima facie.

We would think it suspicious if the government owned a TV station and invited protesters to speak their minds so long as they kept to certain rules; we ought to regard protests on government-owned land with similar suspicion. We value private and independent journalism outlets; we ought to value private and independent places of assembly in the same way.

The central myth here is that government does not have a bias. Government has a pro-government bias, just like Walmart has a pro-Walmart bias. The difference is that Walmart’s revenue is dependent on serving its customers and the government’s is dependent on extortion. This makes expecting the government to be the guardian of society’s public discourse dangerously naive.