• Defending Privilege

    “Business as usual” is always the catch-cry of those who are happy with the way things are. “Let’s not change anything” makes sense to those who are doing well and see no reason to run any risks in case that might disturb their care-free 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 preservation of the status quo and resistance to change are the hallmarks of those who are fearful that their privileged status might be challenged – and, if it is challenged, they will respond with any weapon they can lay their hands on.

    The usual response is to assert that the privilege or advantage 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.

    The difficulty with this line of argument is that we know that privilege breeds privilege – and inequality. We know that it is not just a slogan but an economic fact. Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz shows conclusively that one’s best chance of becoming well-off is to be born to rich parents.

    He also shows that we can 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 arises in two ways and for two reasons. First, if privilege is the determining factor, then incompetent people will be promoted, by virtue of privilege, to positions for which they are not fitted – and our economic leaders will make a worse job of making important decisions that affect all of us.

    Secondly, if privilege is allowed free rein, then able people, with plenty to offer, will be held back and denied opportunities so that the rest of us are denied the full benefits of what they can contribute.

    If, however, we are disturbed by a growing disparity between the well-being of some parts of society and others, we might prefer political leaders who seek change and try to find better and fairer ways of cutting the cake – and making the cake bigger as well.

    Change will alway be uncomfortable for those for whom the status quo is acceptable and desirable. They will always reach for arguments that those seeking change are on the wrong track, or that the change is misconceived or won’t or can’t work, or that, even if it is brought about, it will produce outcomes that are not those intended.

    Those who see change as threatening their privilege will, in other words, always seek to defend that privilege, usually by attacking those who seek change – what else do you expect them to do?

    So, the next time you read or hear someone resisting change, pause to question their motives. Are they really opposed to change in general, and across the board, or are 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 lazy or greedy and 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 thinking of others and working hard.

    Another tell-tale sign is when it is not change itself but those proposing change – change in the general interest and not for personal gain – who are attacked, for facing up to difficulties inevitably encountered in bringing that change about; the message seems to be that if change can’t be achieved painlessly or smoothly it should not be attempted.

    No one pretends that change is painless or that remedying past deficiencies does not carry a cost. But we should always be on our guard against those who, as a matter of course, attack proposed change on the ground that it is misconceived and that disturbing the status quo should always, and as a matter of principle, be resisted.

    Change can only be resisted by those who are satisfied that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – and guess who thinks like that?

    Bryan Gould
    15 May 2019