How can anyone be against reform? Are there not countless things wrong with our society, countless injustices and abuses taking place even as yours truly writes this? Of course there are. Are we, then, to ignore such abuses, such injustice, and leave our fellows to suffer as we go about our own lives, selfishly pursuing our own ends? Of course not. Then have I not in effect accepted the need for reform? Let me explain why not.
To reform is to seek to “re-form,” that is, to take something and attempt to reshape it in a manner more suited to our tastes, more closely fitting our preconceived notion of how it ought to be. In politics this generally means to posit some grand, general principle of the good or the just and to examine critically all political and social institutions to see how well or how poorly they live up to that principle. Then political power is used to “reform” the institutions, the customs, and even the beliefs and characters of the people to force them into our preconceived mold.
We all are witnesses to how the reforming impulse has played out in recent decades, with drives to end “institutionalized injustice” in terms of race, sex, and sexual orientation. The reformation of society to fit an abstract notion of justice, generally translated as some form of equality, has damaged our social fabric even as it has proved impossible to achieve in any coherent fashion. The result? Increased dissatisfaction, violence, and social alienation as people give up on the future embodied in children, instead giving themselves over to ideological fantasies and mere self-indulgence.
This is why the types of reform demanded keep changing. The much-maligned “slippery slope” argument is merely a recognition of reality. One reform must lead to another, and then another, because no reform is ever “enough” to produce the perfection any given principle demands. Reform’s unending nature is intrinsic to the imperfect character of all persons and to the impossibility of any institution or society embodying any ideological principle. People are not principles and their institutions, like those who shape them, are the products of custom, habit, and daily interactions that sometimes do, but more often do not, have any single, narrow goal in mind.
The purpose of a school system, for example, is not to “achieve justice.” It is to educate children so that they may know something of who they are and may gain the capacity to lead productive lives as members of their families, communities, and society. Such a general goal requires a number of approaches, attitudes, and customs aimed at teaching skills, inducting into the culture, and instilling habits of civility, to name a few of the most important practical ends. Yet school “reforms,” like those in housing policies, policing, and numerous other areas of life under which we now must live, are aimed at particular goods and goals that often conflict with that nexus of ends making up an institution. The result in education, whether the reform involves unionization, consolidation of school districts, or, more typically, “reform” of the curriculum to increase the “inclusiveness” of various materials and attitudes, has been disastrous to our children’s educations.
Today’s most influential blunt instrument of reform is “disparate impact analysis.” The theory behind disparate impact is that unequal outcomes are by nature the result of discrimination; if a supposedly neutral policy produces unequal outcomes, the prejudice goes, it must be hiding some kind of bias within itself that must be stamped out. The discrimination complained of may be the direct result of improper attitudes of those currently in positions of power; an employer may refuse to hire a given person on the basis of racial or other hatred. But discrimination also may be, in itself, a more “institutionalized” form of oppression invisible to those who are “privileged” by current power relationships. The Obama administration has been using the analytic non sequitur of disparate impact, which overlooks the host of factors involved in the “unequal” distribution of people in every aspect of life, to force restructuring of education policy, policing, and now the housing market. Suspensions from school, arrest rates, and even the distribution of home buyers, categorized by race, are used to “prove” that something must be wrong, that discrimination must be going on because, without it, we all “know” that results would be equal across racial (or other) lines. This is insulting to everyone involved, whatever their race, because it denies the power of freewill, the legitimacy of custom, and the possibility of choice to alter outcomes, instead enshrining political power as the sole possible spur to just conduct and equal outcomes as an imperative goal, whatever the costs, despite any contrary preferences or the relevant cultural context of those involved.
In the name of this disparate justice, the Obama administration has imposed, through unilateral bureaucratic rules and simple bullying in the form of threatened litigation, a host of policies trumping local decision making and common sense. Thus, for example, the Minneapolis School District now imposes, in essence, racial quotas on school suspensions for nonviolent offenses. Students habitually disrupting classes but not actually striking anyone (or pulling a knife on anyone) now are treated differently according to their race in an effort to enforce equal outcomes, meaning proportionate numbers of suspensions categorized by race.
Now, one might argue that this is simply an argument against one form of misconceived reform. After all, one might argue, the proper principle for reform is not equality of outcome by race or any other category, but individual freedom, or equality in the sense of outcomes dependent solely on the actions rather than the color (or sex, or sexual orientation, or for that matter virtue or social utility) of the people involved. But the principle involved, if it is used as a tool of the state in its drive to force a given uniform vision on society, matters very little, if at all. Any principle, taken as the guide to political action, will result in social disruption, distortion, and often increased injustice by the very fact that it is being imposed by an outside (potentially armed) force on the variety of institutions and customs making up any functioning society.
And yet, we are told, this is the price of “progress.” Progress, in this view, is a movement toward a more just future and society. It is a process, not some single change in policy. It continually makes us better, rather than simply correcting any single, isolated problem. And this is the problem of reform. The systematic reformer, whether addressing the evils of alcohol abuse, of poverty, or even of racial prejudice, is always at risk of making the perfect the enemy of the good and, more dangerous, crushing the little platoons in which we learn to act decently toward one another in small, practical ways, on the way to building some bureaucratic apparatus to force us to be good. This is not how social bonds are strengthened or how individual persons rise above unthinking hatreds. It is how political power is built up to dangerous levels even as the strength of our social institutions is drained away.
Reform movements almost always get their impetus from obvious injustices and bad acts—from abuses that genuinely should be addressed. The list of such abuses and their categorizations is almost without limit. It includes issues of race, sex, sexual orientation, and also of wealth, marital status, and occupation. It also includes issues of simple abuse of power as well as the loss of order in our public institutions and myriad other problems that plague social life, especially in our current times of social disintegration. The question is not whether such abuses exist but rather how they should be addressed, by whom, and in what capacity.
I would not want to leave the impression that the term reform has never been used in a manner that bespeaks changes for the better. Edmund Burke, founder of modern conservatism, also was a “reformer” in the sense of proposing and seeing through changes to governmental practices and to rules governing royal power (limiting the monarchs’ patronage in order to shore up the independence of Parliament). But Burke noted that where one changes “it should be to preserve.” In Burke’s time, as corrupt aristocracies faced the onrush of revolutionary mob rule in the name of democracy, to speak of reform was to draw a distinction between limited change aimed at ending abuses and revolution, intended to overthrow society in pursuit of some new, supposedly more just social order. Given this, we should do well to concentrate on addressing abuses rather than “re-forming” our society.
Rather than “reform,” which undermines the social order in pursuit of abstract goods, Burke worked to address and end abuses. Whether discussing royal power, economics, or colonial policy, Burke always kept in mind that the proper goal of those entrusted with political power is to preserve the inheritance given to the people by their forebears and to pass it on in at least as good a condition to their children. In an era when government is run essentially by mortgaging our children’s futures through the floating of massive debt, such notions may seem quaint. But the view that proper change should aim at maintaining the fundamental structure of that which must be changed once helped cabin political power. The conviction that even those in government are empowered only to mend abuses and not to upend and muck about with social structures once left the power to make real improvements in daily life and character where it belonged: with towns, parishes, and other local associations in which relationships are governed by rules of civility rather than tools of power.
The radicals of today—who, sadly, include many with significant political power, up to the Oval Office—present our society as deeply unjust in part to justify their demand that we remake that society to be more to their liking. But it is the attitude of love for one’s country, even if it includes abuses to be addressed, that makes one a friend to that society. A friend will seek to help one address flaws in one’s character. He will not seek to make one over into something different and more to his own liking, let alone tell his “friend” that he is hateful. Hatred cannot breed change for the better, only violence, and, sadly, reformers tend to love only the principle they would use to change everything around them to make it more to their own liking.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.