Reformer Watching

Dr. Carson has specialized in American intellectual history. This, he suggests, is what accounts for his expertise at watching reformers.

Reformer watching will probably never catch on as a national pastime. It requires more patience than watching baseball. It is less stimulating than girl watching, more esoteric than bird watching, and has more moves which must be carefully pondered than does chess. As if that were not enough, most of the time you don’t even know what you are looking for.

Reformers are so adept at concealing their intent that even the most skilled observer is apt to become confused. If baseball were played their way, no one would know where the bases are, and the location of home plate would be a deep dark secret. Even so, reformers need watching, for if they are left to their own devices they are capable to doing an immense amount of harm. It has been well said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and the kind of vigilance required for keeping reformers in their place may be likened to that of a pitcher with a runner on first.

I bring considerable experience to these observations. As unpalatable as the undertaking may appear, I have spent a goodly portion of my adult life as a reformer watcher. I have watched them mount their media campaigns, belabor the ills that beset us from this or that or the other source, mobilize their legislative contingent, bring pressure on presidents, make their appeals to the courts, and enact their programs. I have studied the ideas that animate them and sought to un cover the results of their reforms. I have even seen them slip over to join the critics of some reform they had earlier pushed when the disastrous results had become so manifest that denial would be counterproductive.

I am, then, an inveterate reformer watcher. It is my specialty. From my reading, study, research, and writing I have drawn some conclusions. Even those who lack the stomach for reformer watching themselves may find these conclusions worth their while.

Identifying the Reformer

Before announcing my conclusions, however, it might be well to identify the reformer I have in mind. There are reformers and reformers. My favorite among them is the fellow who sets out to reform himself, leaves others to their own designs, and having accomplished some portion of his purpose allows us to notice the improvement without editorializing about it himself. Another reformer, of sorts, is one who introduces changes, either social or mechanical, which are so superior that others imitate him. However, he is usually thought of, and correctly, so long as he sticks to his own affairs, as an innovator rather, than a reformer.

Then, there is the reformer who calls upon us to mend our ways, a variety I find most attractive when he is talking about other people’s faults. There have been reformers, too, who have sought to extend individual liberty and voluntary social arrangements by limiting and restraining government. I count myself among these but do admit that we will bear some watching, for not every such change can be accomplished so as to produce salutary results. My own considered view is that all change should be approached warily, for new ills are less easily countered than those with which we are familiar.

But the reformer who needs constant watching, the one who is the focus of our attention here, is of a different breed. That is not to say that in his humanity and foibles he is different from the rest of us. Not at all. On the contrary, the seeds of his vice reside in every human breast. His vice is the conceit that he has been called to straighten out the rest of us. While the conceit may distinguish him, the inclination probably does not. Each of us is equipped with a will to order our surroundings to our own liking, and, so far as people are concerned, we must notice early on that they will just not do to suit us. They pursue their own interests rather than ours, consult their own tastes rather than ours which are more discriminating, and are not overly receptive to our efforts to set them straight.

If that were the extent of the matter, the reformer would be unremarkable. Watching him would be no more than watching the human species in action. The making of the kind of reformer we have in mind involved much more. It involved the changing of what is recognizable as a vice, meddling into the affairs of others, into a virtue. This, the reformer achieved by imputing to his concern for others an active responsibility for their well-being. Men, in general, had to be conceived as perpetual children, standing constantly in need of direction and supervision by some tutelary power. Once that had been done, the reformer would be virtuous, for he would be looking after those incapable of looking after themselves.

The Reformer Is Utopian and Promises Steady Improvement

More, the reformer who is the center of our attention here is an utopian. He doesn’t usually admit it, but he is. He visualizes a world brought to perfection under the tutelage of the reformer. It will be a world in which politicians have no interests of their own to pursue but are diligently devoted to the general welfare, in which all contraptions work perfectly, in which all risks have been removed from life and everything is safe, in which everyone is vigorously working in concert for the general good. It is a world in which competition has given way to cooperation, in which there is freedom without responsibility, plenty without the necessity for struggle, and full time pleasure with never a pain. His vision is of a land that is nowhere, therefore, an utopia.

Of course, the reformer does not usually profess his utopianism; instead, he promises improvement, albeit steady and, hopefully, continuous. How is all this to be brought about? Now, we are at the nub of the matter. The reformer claims to have discovered a wondrous machine that will bring all this to pass. That machine, or mechanism, is government! The reformer did not discover government, of course; that has been around for some time. What he has discovered, or alleges, is that government can be used to bring about marvelous improvements in our condition.

In view of its antiquity, this is a strange claim to make about government. We might suppose that if government were capable of performing such marvels, many, if not most of them would long since have been vouchsafed to us. Sad to say, that has not been the case. Even the most casual student of history must recognize that the record of government has been quite uneven. In deed, far from being in much position to improve people, most governments have stood greatly in need of improvement themselves.

Far be it from me to blacken the reputation of government, however, for I perceive it to be necessary, if not a necessary evil then made necessary by the evil that lurks in our breasts. But the methods of government are not of the sort that would ordinarily inspire in us the belief that they could be generally applied so as to improve our lot. Lest we forget, government has to do with the least attractive of all legitimate human endeavors. The basic business of government is to maintain the peace, and to do so it must resort to force, using it only against wrongdoers, hopefully, but force nonetheless. Its constabulary seizes people against their wills, locks them up, surrounds them with intimidation, and compels them to submit to judgement. Its officers are fitted out with weapons of one sort or another: pistols, sticks, heavy flashlights, rifles, and other death or injury dealing instruments.

The Role of Government

Government is the only body within society charged with the duty of compelling, incarcerating, maiming, and killing, when and as the occasion for it arises. To support itself, government seizes some portion of the substance of the people who live under its sway. At best, government is a considerable burden; at worst, it is the cross which those who are more or less innocent bear for the presence amongst them of the more pronounced wrongdoers.

Of course, the reformers I have in mind do not usually face the problem of the forceful and imperfect nature of government (or of those who govern) head-on. It is not government, the ancient and immemorial user of force, that they profess to have discovered. It is, instead, dem ocratic government. The reformers have, so to speak, stolen first base; they have engaged in some sleight-of-hand. They have set aside the problem of perfecting government and substituted for it the perfecting of democracy. There is little doubt that if perfect democracy consisted of everyone voting, democracy could be very nearly achieved. But how .government would be improved, much less perfected, is by no means clear. The proof is lacking for establishing as a fact the view that government is either substantially altered or improved by the expansion of the electorate.

Here is where the sleight-of-hand comes in. In democracy, they will have us believe, the government becomes all of us. Government is no longer that specialized instrument of force that it has ever been; it has been transformed into the general will. It is supposedly purified of its dross by the alchemy of the popular vote. Such a change is not apparent, however, to the skeptical and unbelievers. Government still acts by the police, the military forces, resorts to taxation, and uses coercion to attain its ends.

Even so, the reformers have proceeded toward their goal by stealing second base. Unable to change the character of government, they have sought, instead, to change its image. They have downplayed its activities having to do with crime and punishment and presented it as a benefactor which provides goods and services to the people. In recent years, reformers have labored with might and main to restrict and limit if not actually to do away with government’s use of force on criminals. They have opposed capital punishment, limited police activity, provided Federal aid to improve the image of the police, attacked the FBI, sought to reform prisons, and opted for probation rather than punishment.

Expanding the Benefits

Meanwhile, reformers are ever pressing to expand the supposed government benefits. The government makes grants, loans, pays subsidies, provides Medicare, Medicaid, builds sewage systems, offers aid to schools, props up local government with aid, and in thousands of ways showers benefits upon the populace. It is no wonder that this would be attractive to politicians. Not only can they run for office and bid with one another for who will give the most benefits but also they can largely disassociate themselves from the unsavory business of capturing and punishing criminals, an activity in which the use of force is direct and obvious.

The reformers have stolen third base, too. They are in the process of changing the object of the law. Law has usually been basically concerned with the protection of life and property from trespassers. It still serves that function to some extent, of course, but reformers have shown much more diligence of late in preserving the lives of criminals than of their victims. As for property, they are given to declaring that lives should not be endangered to protect it. Rather, they have been busily advancing legislation for the creation of a host of new crimes. These laws have to do especially with regulating, restricting, restraining, and compelling commercial activity. The government has been becoming the dominant third party in all transactions between employers and employees and buyers and sellers. There is said to be a great increase in “white collar” crime in our day. Small wonder, when every transaction is fraught with the danger of criminal prosecution!

Finally, the reformers are in the process of stealing home plate. They are doing so by changing government from its role as protector of property to plunderer of property. Government is still an instrument of force, but it is changing the focus of its exercise of force and bringing it to bear on the property of the citizenry. What can be bought with a given amount of money is rapidly declining as government increases the supply. Ever larger amounts are being taken in taxes to pay for the benefactions of government. Even where property is technically left with its private owners, control over it is being taken away by regulations and prescriptions as to how it is to be used.

Who Are They?

Who are these reformers? They are all those who act on the premise that the responsibility for the well-being of each of us is collective, who see government as the instrument for implementing this collective responsibility, and who formulate and support programs of this character. The animating idea behind them is socialism, but they are not usually called by that name in the United States. They have been most commonly called liberals for the last half century or so. They are more apt to be Democrats than Republicans. Their home base is usually some sort of intellectual endeavor: college professor, school teacher, dramatist, journalist, preacher, editorial writer, or what have you. For several decades, their assumptions have held sway in the media of communication.

We should not suppose, however, that the reformers are always victorious, that they are able to move in a straight line toward whatever is their goal. On the contrary, they have suffered many set backs along the way. That is the moment when they require the most vigilant watching, however. For they are quite adept in turning apparent defeat into victory. This is especially the case when the victory is so superficial as to leave their assumptions still in control.

We may be faced with just that set of circumstances at the present time. It is generally believed that the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and of a Republican-controlled Senate in 1980 was a considerable set back to the reformers we have been discussing. Superficially, it undoubtedly was, and it may well turn out to be a much deeper change than we can yet know. But there were signs, even before Mr. Reagan was inaugurated, of the reassertion of the assumptions of the reformers. The most prominent sign was the repeated assertion in the media that the newly elected President was going to concentrate on getting the economy functioning well during the early months of his administration.

Beware the Assumption

There is an assumption in this assertion of which we might well be wary. It may not be an assumption of Mr. Reagan’s. It may not be an assumption of people in his administration. It may not be the assumption which is widely held in the Congress. But it is an assumption, nonetheless. The assumption is that it is the business of government to keep the economy functioning well. There is a tacit assumption, too, if I mistake not, that our economic ills are somehow the result of something wrong with our economy. If that assumption be accepted, it would seem to follow that the government has the task of reforming the economy.

The problem, as I understand it, lies in a different direction. The problem lies mainly in a bloated and malfunctioning government, in a government which has assumed a mass of responsibilities beyond its authority and ability to perform. To put it another way, the government is doing its basic task neither well nor effectively, its basic task of keeping the peace and protecting Americans from trespassers both at home and abroad. Its interventions in the economy have indeed done great harm, but the task is not to get the economy functioning but to contain and limit government so that it can perform its functions well. All this may be only a matter of semantics, but that is how assumptions get planted, by words, and it is the assumptions which tend to pull our actions along with them.

At any rate, it is this sort of thing that I mean by reformer watching. Of course, the subject of reformer watching cannot be exhausted in one easy lesson. It is at least as complex as bird watching—ornithology—and I have enough material on hand for a college course on the subject. Come to think of it, it is of such importance and urgency that every college, and most high schools, should promptly require such a course. And, since I doubt that I will be able to persuade all of them to introduce it voluntarily, plus the fact that the effort would take too much time, there ought to be a law passed forthwith requiring the teaching of it in all schools. How would that be as a reform?

If that last paragraph be taken in the spirit in which it was written, it may lead us to the most important variety of reformer watching. I suspect that each of us has a little reformer inside him. It may be undernourished and insignificant in all those going about their own business and shouldering their responsibilities. But as soon as we are ever enticed by the notion of unloading some of our responsibilities on others, and especially on government, the reformer begins to gain hold of us. Most of us have our hands full in watching that potential reformer in ourselves. In fact, if each of us would take care of that particular reformer there would be no occasion for reformer watching at large, even for those who may derive pleasure from it.

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