The Difference Between Change and Reform

Did you notice that when Gov. Sarah Palin was campaigning for vice-president she talked about "reform?"  Candidate Obama campaigned on a different theme, "Change We Can Believe In."  In case you weren't paying attention, he had the slogan on the emblazoned on the front of his lectern.

The word "Change" is a curious one.  In politics it is most often used in the context of "Time for a Change." It speaks to the periodic need to throw the rascals out.  But in left-speak it means something more.  It evokes the need for "social change" or "transformative change."  Change in this sense means the secular hope for salvation in this world that the left substitutes for the transcendental hope of religion.

Conservatives do not subscribe to the notion of secular salvation.  We believe that salvation only comes in the next world.  So we don't need to inject transcendental hope into politics.  We think in terms of Reform, not Change.

Reform is like cleaning and tidying up a living room before a party.  You know that in a couple of hours your room will look like a disaster.  But you still do it anyway.

Change is like a makeover.  You imagine that,with a new hairstyle, new clothes, and new makeup you life will change and a different kind of man will address himself to you.

It's a good time to start thinking about this as we conservatives watch the change machine at work and yearn instead for good conservative reform, of the kind we might expect from a President Palin or a President Jindal, both of whom already established records as reform governors.

But, whatever we do, let's not start the Palin or the Jindal administration in the clueless manner of the Obama administration.

We don't yet know what the damage from the Obama administration's zero-for-three first month will be.  Nobody can.  We won't know until November 2010.  But at least Republican candidates now have talking points about Democrats:

  • The party that talks about ethical government but hires tax cheats;
  • The party that talks about open government but practices lobbyist-friendly government;
  • The party that talks about stimulus but enacts "porkulus."
Above all the Democratic Party is the party that takes care of its special interests before it steps up to fix the credit system, a party that reverses welfare reform without even a public hearing, a party that criticized a president's defense policies for eight years and then turned around and continued them.

If Republicans are not to stumble like the Democrats we have to get our principles straight before we return to political power.  It's not enough just to have a reform program.  Here are three good ones.

  • 1. The Hayek principle: The man in Washington cannot know enough to administer the US economy.
  • 2. The Novak principle: Think of society as three co-equal sectors: economic, political, and moral/cultural. None of the three should dominate the other two, and no two sectors should gang up on the other one.
  • 3. The Perrow principle: Watch out for "system accidents" in complex close-coupled systems.
Readers that know about Hayek and Novak may not know about Charles Perrow.  He's the liberal sociologist who wrote Normal Accidents: Living with Hish-Risk Technologies after the Three Mile Island accident.  He warned about our love affair with efficiency and complexity.  It leads to accidents that can't be controlled.

In complex industrial, space, and military systems, the normal accident generally (not always) means that the interactions are not only unexpected, but are incomprehensible for some critical period of time. In part this is because in these human-machine systems the interactions literally cannot be seen.  In part it is because, even if they are seen, they are not believed.

Does this seem familiar?  Forget the dangers of nuclear plants.  Today we worry about excessively complex political and financial systems.  And right now, it is painfully obvious, we are saddled with a credit system in which any component failure can bring down the whole system.

We've seen, in the last month what Change means.  It means shoveling taxpayers' money at the Democratic base to bail out the Democratic state and local governments that overspent in the boom, and to bail out Democratic homeowners who bought houses they couldn't afford.

The next version of Republican Reform better be different.  It needs to start from rock-solid conservative principles.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and usgovernmentspending.comHis Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.