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What does stability mean?

economic social change

By Aloysius Chia

Many people who support the establishment often say that voting for another party will affect the stability of the country and lead to some kind of radical change. In arguing for why the status quo should remain, they say that is because other parties are not good enough, or that it is because the other parties are incapable of conducting the business of government on the same level that the current government has done.

That is all fair and square, to demand that the government should serve the people on a high level, for it implies some expectation of social justice and sense of fairness of what the government should do. The fear that the government might fall into disarray or be undermined by less qualified opportunistic politicians is a reasonable one.

However, the often-used argument of stability as the prioritising value is insufficient.

Consider the fact that there are many regimes in history that, without proper checks and balances, were prone to the use of excessive force in order to maintain control and stability. On one extreme end there were the Gulag camps used by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and the concentration camps in Nazi Germany used to maintain a specific kind of social order. On a less extreme end are subtle laws that could be used to maintain “stability”, such as what we see in Hong Kong, or the influence of money in American politics.

Stability in itself is not sufficient because all kinds of techniques and methods could be used to maintain it. It could be applied to some more than others, and could mean differently to different people in society.

Many who support the notion of stability are not even aware that, were it of such overarching importance, they would in fact oppose policies that encourage immigration, economic growth and development, for it is these processes that upend the status quo.

Economic change and development brings its own brand of reconfigurations. Industrialisation, the rise of specific professions, the increasing importance of efficiency and production, shapes how people relate to each other and to time, and stratifies people according to various interests.

Immigration on the other hand, changes the social character of a population due to unfamiliar encounters.

In this way, because this is not what advocates of stability usually mean, what is usually meant by stability is often a more restricted type. Stability is meant to be understood as “economic stability” by those who refer to it generically. But more specifically, it is assumed that economic stability would maintain social stability.

The belief is that the social foundation of society relies upon a stable economic order, which requires economic growth and the provision of jobs and decent wages for all to fulfil their potential. The idea is that when people go to work, maintain familial ties and are connected to society, they will have a more meaningful life and less reasons to be unhappy with what they perceive to be an injustice.

But in order for this to work, the economic order must translate itself to social order, one where people have opportunities to strive for and a fair chance to obtain a better life. One in which the economic system is not rigged in favour of some so that even those with potential are deterred. It requires a recognition that the economic system must in some way serve people who put in effort.

In talking about stability, it is then imperative to ask what purposes this stability is for, and for whom.

These questions are more important than proclaiming stability as the most important value. Stability alone is insufficient, because by itself the concept does not refer to the requirements for its realisation. Beneath the general notion is often some underlying principle that could be said to be more important, without which it could only mean a kind of social arrangement.

Those who proclaim an economic brand of stability often mean to argue for more leeway in individual achievement and entitlement, whereas those who desire more social stability often invoke principles of justice and fairness. These are not entirely exclusive to each other, and one can find some way to support both, but these values can often be conflicting.

But just because are some people who do not support the establishment, does not mean they do not support stability. Likewise, just because there are some who support the establishment or status quo, but it does not follow that they support stability. Supporting the establishment does not necessarily translate to supporting stability, if the establishment adopts policies that lead to instability.

All of stability depends very much on the quality of the candidates that run for elections. It also depends on what vision the parties have, what they plan for the future for everyone; the details of those plans; the credentials of their candidates; and their experience in organisation and engagement with the people. It also depends to on the amount of rapport that candidates have with the people.

It is then a consequence of rhetoric that those who support the establishment have often come to be associated with support for stability, whereas those who support otherwise are said to not support stability. In reality, the reverse is very much possible.

Those who ardently support stability as the most important value should be aware that there are no guarantees, and that is why so many people buy insurance, even though they do not really need it.