6.2.4.2 Defending the Interests of the Powerful

Some governments protect the interests of the rich and powerful.  They resist any change which would lessen their grip on power, especially if it redistributed some of the wealth of their supporters.  They don’t try to govern for the benefit of the population as a whole.

Edmund Burke defended giving hereditary owners of property a role in government, in his letter, Reflections on the French Revolution:

“The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself.  It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice.  The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession, (as most concerned in it) are the natural securities for this transmission.  With us the House of Peers is formed upon this principle.  It is wholly composed of hereditary property and hereditary distinction; and made therefore the third of the legislature; and, in the last event, the sole judge of all property in all its subdivisions.  The House of Commons too, though not necessarily, yet in fact, is always so composed, in the far greater part.” [para. 83]

Harold Laski criticised this aspect of Burke’s thinking, in his book Political Thought from Locke to Bentham, particularly in pages 204-6.  In the electoral system in 1790, when Burke was writing, few men and no women were allowed to vote; the representation was very distorted.

Conservative parties on both sides of the Atlantic have frequently defended the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor.  Larry Summers argued in 2017 that, although Treasury Secretary Mnuchin had “stated on multiple occasions that the Administration’s tax proposals would not favor the rich”, Donald Trump went ahead anyway:

“between massive corporate rate cutting, big tax cuts for the highest income individual taxpayers, elimination of the estate tax, and other incentives it is a certainty that the vast majority of the benefits of the plan will go to a very small fraction of tax payers”.

A UN report in November 2018, on poverty in the UK, stated that:

“The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”

Traditional religion has usually adopted a conservative position, to protect its power and wealth.  Medieval Catholicism, for example, tried to combat what it saw as a threat from science in order to retain its authority – as in its treatment of Galileo for example, as described in a BBC article Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).  The Church and European monarchies lent legitimacy to each other, to buttress their power in what Melvin Rhodes described as The Uneasy Relationship Between Church and State.

Authoritarian governments try to maintain the status quo to preserve their power.  Although it can be argued that keeping order is of prime importance in some countries, to prevent the outbreak of civil strife, the maintenance of power for its own sake is of questionable legitimacy unless various safeguards are in place – as discussed later (6.3.1.7).

A powerful minority might want to retain control indefinitely, but that is rarely possible in the longer term.  Even if a country tries to prevent change within its borders, the world around it will continue to develop – increasing the internal pressure for change.  People are more likely to demand reform if they can see that life in other countries appears fairer and better.

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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6242b.htm