• Defending Privilege

    “Keep things as they are,” is always the catch-cry of those who are happy with their lot. “Change is a waste of time” makes sense to those who are doing well and see no reason to disturb their privileged existence.

    That is precisely why the right-wing party in Britain calls itself the Conservatives – they have plenty to conserve and they don’t want anyone rocking the boat – especially if it’s a luxury yacht. The corollary is that they have little interest in, or sympathy for, those whose vessels are a little less seaworthy.

    The usual argument of those who resist change is that the privilege they enjoy has been earned, and is a just reward for their superior abilities and efforts; it has not, they say, been gained at the expense of others, so any attempt to redress the imbalance between them and those others would not only be misplaced but unfair.

    But we know that privilege breeds privilege – and that is not just a slogan but an economic fact. Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, shows conclusively that the best chance of being well-off is to be born to rich parents.

    He also shows that it is up to us to choose, as a society, whether or not to tolerate a high degree of inequality. If we allow our politics to be dominated by defenders of the status quo (or, in other words, by “conservatives”) we will end up with a society in which privilege is endemic and entrenched and feeds on itself.

    It will also be a society that functions less well, that is riven by discontent and division, and that fails to use its resources (particularly human resources) fully and efficiently.

    The inefficient use of human resources in such a society occurs for two reasons. First, if privilege is the deciding factor, then incompetent people will be promoted to positions for which they are not fitted – and they will then make a bad job of making the important decisions that affect all of us.

    Secondly, if privilege is the key to success, then able people, with plenty to offer, will be held back and denied opportunities so that we lose the full benefit of what they can contribute.

    If, however, we want to see a fairer and more integrated society, we might prefer political leaders who try to find better and fairer ways of cutting the cake – as well as making the cake bigger.

    But those who favour the status quo will always argue that change isn’t needed or won’t or can’t work, or that, even if it is brought about, it will produce outcomes that are not those intended.

    They will, in other words, always protect their privilege, usually by rubbishing those who seek change – what else do you expect?

    So, the next time you read or hear someone, as a matter of course, rubbishing or mocking change or those seeking change, just because it is change, pause to question their motives. Aren’t they really just defending privilege?

    And you should really be on your guard if you are told that those who are less privileged have missed out because they are feckless or ignorant or can’t be bothered to get up in the morning – or that the fat cats got that way because of their inborn qualities and by working hard.

    Another tell-tale sign is when it is not change itself but those proposing change who are attacked, or the difficulties inevitably encountered in bringing that change about are highlighted and celebrated – when their message is that if change can’t be achieved painlessly or smoothly it should not be attempted.

    No one pretends that change is painless or that making good past deficiencies does not carry a cost. But we should always be on our guard against those who say that proposed change should never be supported because it always means worse rather than better, and is, as a matter of principle, misconceived.

    Change can only be resisted in principle by those who are satisfied that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – and only those who don’t think, think like that.

    Bryan Gould
    15 May 2019