Combating Conservatism

In my prior essay What is a Conservative? I tried to define some universal principles that define "conservatism". I've posted this essay on several sites and most of the discussion quickly move from the theoretical to the current condition.

I guess this fits the development of the blogosphere which is mostly focused on current events. There seem to be few places willing to discuss philosophy, either economic or social. Given that we are on the cusp of some world-altering events dealing with the practical may be appropriate as well as necessary.

So, I'm going to telescope the first diary into a couple of definitions and claim that the different viewpoints that have been expressed can be reduced to semantics.

By "conservative" I mean those who use various appeals to the past, ethics or infallible authority to support their position that those on the top should stay there. I claim that this is thinly disguised authoritarianism or plutocracy. In modern, industrialized societies these people are now the wealthy whereas in prior ages they might have included royalty, the church or the army.

In the US (and to a lesser degree in the EU) there are political parties which represent these interests, but by the nature of the power groups they must attract followers who have to be led to believe that their interests coincide with the elite. A prior example would be those royalists who were to be found among the commoners. I listed some of the appeals that this elite is using currently and which they call "conservative" principles in my other essay.

In my framework the opposite of conservatism is democracy, not liberalism. To me conservatism means plutocracy. Liberalism defines the goals that a democratic society should be striving for, these can all be subsumed under "all men are created equal". From this everything else follows.

So the practical issue of the moment is how to lessen the power of the elite and transfer it to the people?

To do that we have to discover what means the elite uses to maintain power. I'll go from the extreme to the mild.

1. State terrorism - this includes Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism and a variety of military dictatorship such as now exists in Burma.

2. Legalized "super" citizens - this includes royalty and the aristocracy, preferential ethnic or religious groups and also the inverse: slaves and serfs.

3. Legalized preferential rights - this includes restrictions on who can own property, who can vote and who can enter into various legal agreements. Saudi Arabia is a current example where the rights of women are restricted by law.

4. Preferential opportunity - points 2 and 3 cover the legal aspects, but there are also the de facto mechanisms such as preferential access to select schools or hiring through the "old boy network". It also applies to housing and other social choices. Discrimination which is hidden is the underlying force operating here. Preferential immigration policies are also included in this limitation.

5. Unequal treatment before the law - crimes committed by disfavored groups are prosecuted more vigorously then others and the punishments are harsher. One can steal $100 million in the US and spend less time in jail then a low level drug dealer.

6. Propaganda - control of the media and restrictions on freedom of expression. The extreme is the closing of rival media outlets as is happening right now in Pakistan or Burma. Other approaches include continual censorship or intimidation of such enterprises; more sophisticated approaches are the control of these outlets by members of the elite. There is no need to censor what your cohorts publish. In the "liberal" west rivals are allowed to publish, thus giving the appearance of freedom of the press, but these publications have limited financial backing and reach only a tiny fraction of the population. Call it the "Hyde Park" effect - you can shout on your soapbox, but hardly anyone will hear you.

So here is what the powerful have going for them: wealth, control of the levers of political and economic power and a comprehensive propaganda operation. They use these tools to appeal to people's fears, prejudices and need to "belong". Studies have shown that the more highly educated people are, or the more they know of the world, or the more contact they have with people not like themselves, the less these techniques work.

So what I propose is for those of us who have no access to wealth or the levers of power to use the one tool that we do have - education. The most powerful force for democracy in the past 200 years was the simple phrase of Thomas Jefferson's

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This swept aside thousands of years of elitism and removed the props holding up my points 2 and 3 above. The only way these "truths" can be kept from the people is by violence or intimidation. Religion still has a grip by claiming a divine class of "super" citizens, but this also weakens with education. There is also a strong correlation between the education and worldliness of people and their unwillingness to follow organized religion in matters of public policy.

We have a new tool in the internet which the elite has not yet realized will provide a threat to their propaganda monopoly. There are steps in the US already to restrict the internet. These are taking the form of giving the service providers control of content, either explicitly or via various pricing mechanisms. There are also attempts to use copyright laws to limit comment on published material. Others are pushing into libel law as a way to suppress information. The US FCC is trying to allow broadcasters to own newspapers in the same market. This would further limit the range of information. The FCC has no legal mandate to deal with newspapers.

Access to information is also controlled by election rules. While ostensibly restricting the power of special interests to influence elections, the rules do the opposite. The well funded can buy advertising while the populists cannot afford this. In Europe limited time for campaigning also gives an edge to those with the biggest megaphone. New ideas take longer to develop and explain. A shortened campaign is not conducive to this.

While we have our small megaphone of the internet we need to use it diligently. This means that all cases of propaganda and special dealing need to be exposed and countered. Efforts to make the workings of congress, for example, more visible have been resisted. Laws are passed after only being available for inspection for as little as a day even by the representatives. Open government efforts must be supported. Especially important is the exposure of special deals for individual groups or regions and the paybacks to the politicians promoting them.

We do not yet have those who are willing (or able) to spend time reading legislation in progress or new proposed regulations. The lobbyists do this and are funded by their sources, the public needs its own representatives. Perhaps a formal investigative organization funded by concerned citizens might be needed. The limited amount of investigative reporting these days is done by print publications and, as I said above, the independent ones have few financial resources with which to support these activities.

There are various good government groups, but they are uncoordinated and their funding is haphazard. An internet funded group might be worth a try.

To summarize, the power of the people resides in information. Gathering it and disseminating it needs to be the focus of those of us who are already familiar with the new information landscape.

Moral: Equal rights must be defended or they are lost.

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Copyright © 2007 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.