Some Thoughts on Change, Large and Small
There is nothing new about one’s political opponent’s trying to define your philosophy. This is a part of politics as old as the republic, and the more stinking and fearsome you can define how your enemy thinks, the more hay you will make with the electorate.
It worked so well for movement conservatives that they have chased the designation “liberal” from public discourse, perhaps for all time, by demonizing, exaggerating, and ultimately condemning those who identified themselves thusly as less than patriotic, less than American.
And previous to that, liberals worked wonders with the word “conservative” as they branded anyone of that philosophical bent a frothing at the mouth anti-Communist, a danger to American liberties, an ignorant, unlearned rube distrustful of intellectuals, and a mossback who looked with suspicion on international entanglements.
So goes the unending war between the two great philosophies – the yin and yang of the soul of America, forever condemned to be at odds while the country would find it impossible to do without both.
The complementary forces at work that make both liberals and conservatives necessary for a healthy society far exceed the puny efforts to rip asunder the the soul of America where these philosophies reside. While we have seen in recent decades an excessive partisanship that seeks dominance and control over the mechanism of government, what has been happening beneath the surface hasn’t changed; the slow, grinding forces of history that shape the destiny of America in ways we can only understand when we remove ourselves from the present political skirmishes and see the contours revealed by looking over our shoulder at what we have become.
American history is not a straight line proposition. It is tempting for narrative historians to paint it that way, but by doing so, much is missed in the translation. And the reason that is basically true is because of how America changes over the years, and the nature of change itself.
Generally speaking, America is a nation created to embrace change. Our Constitution has codified this notion by including the radical idea that future circumstances may require that the founding document be amended. But at the same time – and this is the key – the founders made it damn near impossible to alter their masterpiece. The Constitutional amendment must be passed by a 2/3 vote Congress and then approved by 3/4 of the states. A tall order that, as evidenced by the fact that, excluding the Bill of Rights, we have altered the text of our founding document only 17 times in 221 years.
Clearly, the founders wanted a little built in prudence to govern the engine of change. There is nothing wrong with that, as any conservative could tell you. Prudence is perhaps the most important civic virtue to which a society and by extension, government can aspire. It allows for change without overturning society in a helter skelter effort to address the issue of the day, putting a break on passion and forcing the citizenry to deal with what needs to be done in a rational manner. Change should be managed and well considered with a sharp eye directed toward consequences both seen and perhaps unseen.
This has usually been the case in America. And when it hasn’t been so, the worst consequences have usually been outweighed by the gains we have made by marching into the future with little or no idea of where we were going. Only the fact that we were moving ahead seemed to matter.
You can pick your own examples from history but I like the radical change found in Jacksonian democracy overturning the established order and giving ordinary people power they were previously denied. The “Age of the Common Man” had begun and since then, politicians have pandered to that notion of the “ordinary American,” sometimes masking schemes that accomplished exactly the opposite by claiming solidarity with regular folk.
Thinking of what has been done by government in the name of the “Middle Class” is to contemplate the unforeseen consequences that Old Hickory unleashed. And yet, we certainly wouldn’t trade what we have with what the Jacksonians defeated; the idea that there was a landed aristocracy who should rule by birthright.
In a similar fashion, we welcome the effects of destroying slavery even with the monumentally awful consequences of war, bitterness, divisiveness, and the system of Jim Crow that replaced bondage because slavery was such a fundamental evil that the unforeseen consequences didn’t matter. It could be said that in the case of getting rid of involuntary servitude and flushing it forever from the Constitution, that we could well say to hell with prudence, the actions we’re taking are long past due.
There are other examples of great change leading to unforeseen and deleterious consequences. Think of the Great Depression and the revolution in government begun by FDR. Until that time, the only contact people had with Washington was basically through the post office, or the draft. FDR changed that forever by initiating a massive government intervention in the economy in order to “save capitalism” while ordinary people were helped via government assistance with jobs, food, and housing. By today’s standards, these changes were modest indeed. But whether you are a liberal or conservative, you have to agree that there were unintended consequences to these changes and that not all of them were good.
Think of World War II and the rise of the national security state, the baby boom, the creation of a consumer driven economy – all changes that have good and bad consequences for our society, most of them unforeseen. War seems to accelerate change whether we want it or not which is a consequence in and of itself. How different we would be if we had not been drawn into the conflict? Alternate history parlor games notwithstanding, it would be impossible to say.
This brings us to the present and our president’s charge that opponents of his health insurance reform plan failed to embrace it because of their fear of change. There is something to that idea, although I would strenuously argue that for many on the right, it was not a question of being fearful of change per se, only the imprudent, unforeseen, uncontemplated changes inherent in a 3000 page bill few had read, fewer still understood, and no one could imagine the worst of what this effort at comprehensive reform of 1/6 the economy would mean.
Russel Kirk may be talking about conservative philosophy here, but I think he speaks to prudent people everywhere:
Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
It’s almost as if the old professor had health insurance reform in mind when he wrote those words more than 50 years ago. The difference here between “real conservatives” (Kirk) and “true conservatives” (Palin) is probably lost on the partisans from both sides. But there is a universality to what Kirk is saying that strays beyond ideology and speaks to something far more important; our innate common sense.
President Obama has made a passionate case for health insurance reform. Indeed, many on the left have declared America deficient because we refuse to follow the lead of our European betters and embrace government run health care. I don’t doubt for a minute their sincerity in believing what the Democrats hath wrought on health care reform isn’t good and necessary, although I would gently point out that our founders went about writing a Constitution that put as much distance as possible between us and their ancestors across the sea.
I do question their common sense and prudence in advancing legislation that so many don’t want, and so many have pointed out potential disastrous consequences. Given that all change brings with it these unforeseen happenstances, and that the bigger the change, the more potential for catastrophe, one can only conclude that this kind of massive reform of the entire health care system was unnecessary and imprudent.
Change for the sake of change is mindless idiocy. Change because we are unique, and altering our society to conform to someone else’s idea of what is proper is nonsensical. There must be purpose, logic, and reason to change or you allow passion to govern. And if that be the case, you not only lack prudence, but judgment as well.
The American people would have embraced a far less ambitious, less costly, more tailored reform effort. We could have insured the uninsured and made insurance available to those denied it because of a pre-existing condition. We could have placed the hand of regulation less heavily on insurance companies while forcing them to conform to better standards, with more consumer protection. We could have done all of this and then carefully weighed the consequences before proceeding further.
But we didn’t. And the unforeseen consequences of this imprudent alteration in our health care system may far outweigh any good done in the passing of it.