April 2, 2006

A tale of two protests

By: James N. Markels

Protests. What are they good for? Every protester thinks that they are marching in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, righteously amassing popular opinion to change the world. But in reality, protests are a blunt tool that tends to frustrate the aims of their principal directors–assuming they even know what it is they want in the first place.

In France, the latest protests have surrounded new laws concerning labor protections for young workers. The unemployment rate among workers under 26 in France is shockingly high at around 20 percent. Businesses have been generally unwilling to hire lesser-skilled and less-reliable youths because French employment laws make it really hard to fire workers. So the government, in seeking to reduce unemployment, sought to reduce the protections in order to make young workers more hirable.

The result was a bill, called the First Job Contract, which allows employers to fire without cause a worker who is under 26 and has worked at a position for less than two years. The impending passage of this bill sparked repeated violent protests, even more burned vehicles (the “carbeque” seems to be the mascot of any good French protest these days), and put President Jacques Chirac on the ropes.

Chirac still signed the bill into law anyway, which says one thing about the effectiveness of protests. But the real problem was that the protesters, in great measure, were clearly arguing against their own best interests.

Unemployment can’t be waived away with a magic wand–either new jobs must be created, or workers must be made more attractive to employers. You can’t lower unemployment by making it difficult for businesses to expand, and expensive to hire new workers. Something has to give.

From the protesters’ point of view, they shouldn’t be happy with an absurdly high unemployment rate. Someone who is unemployed is making no money at all. Surely an unemployed person would be better off with a job that makes money, but that comes with fewer protections, than no job at all. But the protesters want exactly the opposite. Viva le chômage (unemployment)? Who would ever put that on a protest placard?

In America, the protests have been focused on the recent debate over what to do with illegal immigrants. Republicans and Democrats both face internal schisms over how to handle the problem. For Republicans, the line has been drawn between those who emphasize economic growth and see immigration, even illegal immigration, as fostering that growth, and those on the Right who fear that immigration is slowly changing the country’s demographic compositon for the worse. Democrats are torn between sticking up for the interests of ethnic minorities and sticking up for poor Americans who find themselves competing with immigrants for jobs.

In response to this debate, immigrants in several major American cities have protested in favor of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, with foreign flags interspersed among the American flags. As Mickey Kaus pointed out, waving foreign flags isn’t the best way to attract American voters to your cause.

But the flaws go deeper than that. It’s one thing to argue in favor of more legal immigration, but supporting illegal immigration is another boat altogether. While it is true that illegal immigrants are also generally good for the American economy, it doesn’t stand to reason that blessing the violation of the law is a worthwhile approach. We should want immigrants in America to respect our laws instead of offering encouragement to break them.

Polls generally show Americans open to liberalizing legal immigration while being split over how to handle illegal immigrants. The good thing is that Americans have gradually shifted toward thinking that immigrants are good for our economy. (Compare the above results with the polls I cited a mere two years ago.) And as a result, they are willing to embrace more legal immigration. But pushing Americans to give sanction to illegal entrants is a step too far. The protesters, by backing illegals, risk alienating support for increased legal immigrants–which is what gets them more of what they want anyway.

In short, both protests fell victim to the common pitfall of the garbled message. Instead of a clear declaration of interest, both protests wound up making arguments that just as easily made their goals harder to achieve. And these weren’t instances where concerted radicals hijacked the cause into la-la territory (as happened with Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war campaign, which has now morphed into the Socialist Cause Du Jour Tour)–the message was wrong from the start.

Protests will always have problems staying on message, now that any idiot with a “Free Mumia!” sign can merge into the herd and not be upbraided. But the protests will certainly fail if they can’t even get their own message right. Perhaps it’s a sign that the time of the protest has come and gone. After all, a hundred well-placed blogs can now move opinion better than 100,000 marchers. That’s a revolution we can live with.

James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.