foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Why the few always win and the masses lose

, posted: 9-Jul-2008 10:18


In many parts of the world a certain frustration is growing with the democratic processes that should govern the lives of us - the people. Time and time again it appears as if “those in power” are not listening to what we desire any more and instead follow whatever is proposed by industry lobbyists and other special interest groups. Laws and regulations are passed, which are completely at odds with what most of the people actually want. For the most part, this is just a vague feeling that permeates people's lives. In other cases there are specific examples, but which often only a small group of people is even aware of.


Here is what we have been treated to lately:

  • Draconian laws requiring uninterrupted monitoring of all subscribers' Internet traffic, demanding storage of connection information by ISPs, making it illegal to use DRM-circumventing technologies (for example Europe and Brazil). Purportedly to fight “terrorism” and “copyright violations”, which apparently are seen on almost the same level these days.
  • Advisors with inherent conflict of interest suggesting data protection and surveillance strategies to governments.
  • Ultra-strict copyright laws like the so-called Canadian DMCA.
  • Google being forced to hand over YouTube log files to Viacom and thereby compromising millions of users' privacy for no reason at all.
  • Microsoft using under-handed tactics to force the inferior OOXML “standard” through the ISO fast track process.
  • Implementation of RFID chips and storage of biometric information in passports, proposed as law by board members of the same companies making these chips.
None of these measures do anything to prevent crime, or protect us from threats and keep us safe. None of these laws even benefit us in any way. In fact, they are “anti-features” if you will, put in place to the clear detriment of the public. But yet, here they are.

Why is this all happening?

Why can the interests of a few companies overrule the interests of the masses? Why is there money to lobby for laws that benefit a few, but no money to fight for the freedom and rights of us all? Economics can tell us why...

The answer is simple. The few – in this case the media companies, or companies producing faulty-by-design technologies such as DRM, biometric passports, voting machines or other self-serving but dangerous products – individually benefit much more than the average member of the masses is economically harmed. And since the masses tend to be (dare I say it?) by and large uneducated and clueless about the risks of these laws and processes, they will not care. People in general only start to complain about something if it affects their own financial situation.

Well, the individual member of the masses is economically harmed in this case, but just not enough to wake them up from their slumber. For example, forcing ISPs to retain all this connection information inevitably means that the ISPs have to charge their customers more in order to acquire the necessary equipment. A large ISP with a few thousand customers might have to charge each of them maybe a few cents per month more? Maybe a dollar? So, the actual economic incentive for the masses to protest against such actions is negligible. And besides, the item hasn't appeared on the subscriber's bill yet, and won't appear there until long after the law is passed. As a result nobody cares. In the meantime, the vendor who makes network monitoring equipment knows that they can sell a few million dollars worth of gear to ISPs. They benefit quite nicely and will lobby hard for such laws.

A few win while everyone else loses

We can see the significant economic incentive for the few and the comparatively small economic damage to the individuals of the masses, even though the “masses” as a whole pay the entire bill. There are just too many members on the “masses” side of the equation by which the cost is divided, making the economic damage to the individual small. Thus, most people don't care and can't be bothered.

The loss in freedom and rights is much less tangible and not really noticed by most people until it is much too late anyway.

And that is how special interest groups always end up winning: If they can get some hair-brained scheme passed as law then each of them is set to benefit greatly. Consequently, they are highly motivated to do whatever it takes to get the law through. The average member of the masses on the other hand doesn't know about these developments, doesn't care or realise the threat this poses to their freedom, isn't aware of the ongoing erosion of their rights, and is not substantially affected in a material way.

Consequently, nobody goes on the barricades while back-room deals are done and nifty lobbying takes away their rights.

A solution?

What can be done against this? Short term, probably nothing any more. Note that this has been going on for a long time already, and that these lobbying efforts are not limited to laws and processes about new technology. It's a well established system, if you will. In the long term, though, the only chance for a democracy to protect itself from the vested interests of the few is education. People need to learn to value their rights and freedoms the same way they value the money in their pocket.

As it stands, the masses are happy to be entertained by Big Brother, to buy into the latest DRM-infested fad from proprietary vendors, to continue to vote for political parties that have long sold out to lobby groups, to think that privacy invading tactics are ok, because they have “nothing to hide”, etc.

As long as the masses are kept fat and happy and content, nothing will change. Education is the key. If people would know their history, they would know that even in the old Rome already the emperors knew that “Bread and Games” was the key to a docile public.

Let's not be a docile public, let's look through the warm, fuzzy muck of media entertainment and advertisement for unnecessary consumer goods that dulls our senses and clouds our minds. Let's realize that the democratic rights and liberties we take for granted are no such thing: At some point they had to be fought for. We don't need a revolution, we just need to learn, watch and listen, and let our leaders know that we will vote for what's right, not for what's convenient. We need to let them know that we are watching and expect them to work for us, not against us.

But what am I asking for here? The masses of people actually caring? Having well-informed opinions? Learning?

Sigh... Does that look like a hopeless cause to you as well?

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Comment by BobW, on 9-Jul-2008 12:28

I agree with much of what you've said, particularly in relation to growing frustration/apathy with the democratic process.  However, there is a broad socio-political trend that is the opposite of what you suggest. As countries have become more democratic it has been the majority who have won at the expense of the few, via development of the welfare state.  The welfare state, which has become a major (if not the primary) role of government, exists to transfer wealth from a small number of “rich” people to the large number of “poor” people.  Since there are always relatively few rich people, democracy has enabled the majority to develop, perpetuate, and extend the now massive redistribution of wealth in favour of themselves. One could argue the merits or otherwise of redistribution, especially in terms of long run economic growth.  Whatever your view of the merits, redistribution of wealth in favour of the many at the expense of the few is a direct consequence of democracy.

Author's note by foobar, on 9-Jul-2008 12:38

@BobW: Ah, but isn't a democracy without welfare state possible? And a welfare state without democracy? We know it is. Thus, the problems with democratic processes and the discussion of the welfare state are separate subjects, is it not?

I agree that all modern democratic societies tend to be welfare states to some extent. And I agree that this has helped the material welfare of the masses. But what we are seeing now is again this: Someone stands to gain $10 million by having some law passed that requires some technology. The masses pay with a few dollars per individual, plus their freedom and rights. The one making the $10 million will be taxed on that, maybe 40%. So, he still stands there with $6 million, while the $4 million in taxes will be distributed across millions of citicens in welfare. Each getting a dollar or much less even (on average). At the same time, the one having made the $10 million to start with will also benefit from the relative peace and stability that welfare states provides. He has won twice in this calculation.

Government can be influenced by vested interstest and lobby group even in our western societies, just like they always have been in some corrupt "Banana Republic" without democratic rights or processes.

Welfare of the masses should not just be measured in dollars and cents. It should also be measured in freedoms and in true representation of their will by those who they have elected to govern them. The problem is that discussion of the benefits of the welfare state will instead distract from the real issue, which is the deterioration of our rights and freedoms and of the democratic process.

Comment by BobW, on 9-Jul-2008 13:32

While it is possible to have a democracy without a welfare state, it is unlikely to persist for long.  Once the masses realise that they have the power to extract wealth from the few and give it to themselves, it will be a temptation that is difficult to resist.  Similarly, it is possible to have a welfare state without having a democracy.  But that requires a benevolent leadership that is rare in practice (Zimbabwe being a case in point – it used to be one of the richest countries in Africa, but look at it now).

It is also true that the rich benefit from a stable and peaceful democracy.  However, the rich are arguably the ones who need the least protection, since they have the means to provide for themselves or leave a country that no longer has a stable and peaceful environment.  Again, look at Zimbabwe where it is the poor who lack the means to leave and so suffer the full force of the mess being created around them.

You mention that democracy gives true representation to the masses.  The irony here is that the rich few do not get representation, but instead are subjected to the tyranny of the majority.

So, what can be done about the issues you raised?  A key feature of democracy is that it is a self-correcting system.  If a government ignores or acts too much against the interests of the majority, then it will be replaced at the next election.  While this is a very useful mechanism, it isn’t really sufficient.

I favour, at least in theory, the concepts of participative democracy which involve disclosure of policy plans and binding referenda for all major initiatives.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the apathy and limited attention span of the masses is such that participative democracy is unlikely to work well in practice.  It may be even more subject to abuse by the lobby groups that you are concerned about.

Where does that leave us?  As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

Author's note by foobar, on 9-Jul-2008 14:00

@BobW: I had actually considered putting that quote from Churchill into my original article...

True, the rich are underrepresented in a democracy. But since there are relatively few rich, them being underrepresented is a side effect of majority rule, I guess. And I understand that they are not always being dealt with fairly by the majority, which is often driven by envey.

Nevertheless, the point really is that if you have two competing actions A and B, with A benefiting a small group and B benefiting a large group, and both A and B resulting in the same amount of economic benefit X. Then A is much more likely to come to pass, because X is divided by a smaller number in the end, thus increasing the economic incentive of the individual that participates in making A become a reality.

This is not necessarily about the rich and poor. It is about the fact that the masses allow themselves to be dominated by the special interests of the few, whoever they may be.

foobar's profile

New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
  • Where I have been: Here and there, all over the place.

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