Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Fascination with Change

NOTE: While looking through my old essays, I found another 15 that struck me as particularly interesting. Some may seem a bit dated, as they discuss current events during the period 2008 to 2010, but the principles they discuss are still relevant.

I was listening to songs from my youth today when I was struck by the number of songs obsessed with "change". It is hardly a novel observation. The young tend to be fixated with "change". As I have said many times ("Frightened for our Future", "The Adoration of Youth", "I Blame the Romantics", "Revisiting an Old Topic", "Changing Incentives", "In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Bad Economics Part 9", "How Fast Things Change", "Deadly Cynicism", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Hoist By Your Own Petard") rebellion is an essential part of youth, even the most staid and obedient youth undergo some form of revolt against their parents, if only briefly. It is part of establishing one's own independent identity, breaking away from the control of one's parents, becoming an adult. And, as rebellion is part of being a youth, for many youth, universal dissatisfaction is also an inherent part of being young, which is why so many youth are also fixated on "change", change divorced from context, from details, change for the sake of change. It is why for the past several generations we have heard so much about ill-defined "revolution", the need for "reform" and for "things to change". Youth may not know precisely what is wrong, or why, they may not know what will fix it, but they do know two things, that the world is wrong and that it needs to change, and it really doesn't matter how. From their perspective, any change is a good change. Things are "just that bad".

In times past, most thoughtful adults rejected this idea. Fanatics, the truly desperate, and those under the sway of rabble rousers might be willing to buy into undefined revolution, but most viewed that as a childish perspective. Adults understood, to some degree, what I described in "The Runaway Stagecoach", that no matter how bad the circumstances change can still be for the worse. Yes, dire circumstances and popular enthusiasms might blind some, but even then most realized change fort he sake of change was likely to lead to worse not better. If you doubt this, look at Germany in the early thirties. Economy in shambles, voters with only a few years' experience with popular government, violent revolts taking place around the nation, political parties offering a variety of overheated radical politics, and the Nazi rhetoric still could elicit support from only 32% of voters. That such a prime candidate for totalitarian or communist takeover only fell through parliamentary wrangling should tell us that even the least familiar with freedom and self-government could understand that change is worthwhile only if it moves in the right direction.

What makes this a depressing realization is to discover that our own adults, even our  supposed "best and brightest", the "thinkers" and "intellectuals" among us, all do not have the same understanding. Being taken in by the immature culture we have crafted, they tend to accept its values, and approve of "change" for the sake of change. Even more troubling, despite the beliefs f many, it is not a problem limited to aging flower children, or WTO protestors, or even college students. It isn't even limited to the political left. This belief that change is good, that rapid change will bring benefits, has permeated the entire political spectrum, and that has had dire effects.

It is obvious that the left has embraced the cult of change. Obama won by promising undefined change, change to an unspecified new state. And he has since sold us on an unknown medical "reform", arguing that our dire circumstances require yet another undefined "change". We won't know what he is giving us, but he promises us it is "change", and since our current situation is so dire ("Redefining Insurance... To Actually BE Insurance", "The Insurance Sham", "My Health Care Plan", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "High Cost of Medical Care", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House",  "A Simple Question", "An Interesting Conversation", "Bad Economics Part 10", "The GOP Health Care Plan", "Semantic Games"), any change must be for the better.

What many fail to note is the way this viewpoint has permeated conservative thought. No, not the moderates and RINOs, I mean fully-blooded conservatives. How many times have you heard someone say that if a given measure passes it is time for armed revolt? Or just admiringly mentioned Jefferson's comment about regular revolutions? What about the many who opposed McCain to "send a message" and drive the Republican party right?Over and over conservatives have followed the liberals in calling for radial rapid change. And that is, despite the beliefs of many, inimical to conservatism.

Yes, our nation was founded by a revolution, but as I argued in  "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism" they only did so after exhausting every option. For that matter, the classical definition of modern conservatism is one who stands astride the flow of history and yells "Stop", not "turn around." Conservatism is about keeping what we still have and slowly bringing back what we lost, it is not about radical change.

But why not? I am sure many will argue things are so bad, why not fight for radical change? Why leave so many left wing programs in place? Why fix things slowly?

The reason is simple. We know, theoretically, what is the best form of government (or know so within certain limits), and we know what is wrong with the present system, but we do not know what will happen as we transition from one to the other. In fact, as I argue in "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "The Illogic of Sex Offender Registries and Preventive Detention Continues, With a Technocrat Twist" and elsewhere, we cannot know. Human behavior is unpredictable outside of broad, general principles. And so, when we reform, we will experience unpredictable side effects. If we change gradually, we will know the cause, can fix it, and find another route to our destination. If we make wholesale changes, we cannot know what causes problems, and the problems may event interact with one another, causing new problems, even preventing us from reaching our goal. Thus, there is a very sound, practical reason to make changes slowly.

But there is another reason to be hesitant to make rapid change. Conservatives supposedly honor tradition, and humbly accept that those who made our nation were at least as wise as we are. If we are humble in the face of the collective judgment of the past, then we need to exercise caution in making changes. Yes, we think we know what was a mistake, think we know where best to modify, but we might be wrong. And if so, we need to be able to change back. So, unless we adopt the arrogance characteristic of liberalism ("How the Government Corrupts Relationships",  "Deadly Cynicism", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2", "The Right Way", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "Contradictory World Views"), we need to make our changes with proper deference to the past, respect for those who thought about such things before. And making changes slowly and cautiously is really the only way to express such humility.

So, while I can understand the liberal fascination with rapid, ill-defined change, I must confess confusion with the conservative support for it Then again, given our tendency to support big government while publicly decrying it, I have trouble understanding many conservatives at all. Until we adopt a consistent position, I am afraid our reforms will come to nothing and liberals will, in the long run, win every dispute.

POSTSCRIPT

You can read more on predictability and gradual change in  "The Problem With Evolving Standards",  "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Predictability", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism", "Empathy" Threatens not "Justice" but Predictability", "Sotomayor and Empathy", "Interpretation and Activism", "Why Judicial Activism Hurts",  "The Problem With Tort Reform" and "Red Herring". Also, my overall political position can be found in "A True Conservative Platform", with the theoretical basis found at "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", "Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "The Benefits of Federalism", "An Analogy For Government" and "A Simple Proposal".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/04/19.

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