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Change and vainglory

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted September 15, 2008

For conventional liberalism, "social change" – meaning, political change – presents little problem, and no problem at all for radicals. Ironically, given liberals' skepticism towards the market and socialistic radicals' aversion to it, such a blasé attitude towards "change" is entirely compatible with a market society. Capitalism is always in flux, largely because of people's entrepreneurial capacities, proclivities and desire for novelty. There has never been a market society that strictly observed rhythm and tradition, with no change except for shifts from one routine to another at fixed times.

We change jobs, we change career paths, we change places to live. The products we buy and sell change too. Normally, these changes take place smoothly, to the point where any group of people put out by such changes are automatically assumed to be victims of market iniquity. Had smooth change not permeated the capitalist world, those presumed victims of the marketplace would be known as "victims of change" instead. The free market wouldn't be the catchall whipping boy; the innovator would. The anti-capitalistic critique that prevailed would be something like "The ‘Free' Market – Disturber Of The Peace."

Any such critique published today would be so ridiculous as to be satiric. Despite the continual yelps of "Reactionary!", there are very few people who would seriously defend a society where all is in stasis. Change is everywhere, including in military strategy and tactics.

The normality of smoothness of the changes we see leads some people to think that political change can be enacted as smoothly. These people tend to be bookish, and often college students. They're like someone who thinks that changing the number of Canada's provinces from ten to thirty, or of changing Canada from constitutional monarchy to republic, or of letting the Vermont secessionists try out their experiment in complete state sovereignty, is as straightforward as, say, an expansion of a product line, a rebranding, or a spinoff. These people tend to be nice, straightforward, generally law-abiding from childhood, and post-adolescent. It's one of life's phases which many college students tend to go through.

Unfortunately, some of them never grow out of that phase – even when they have the reins of government placed in their hands.

What makes radical political change "radical," in the Toryish sense of "chaos-inducing," is the prime difference between government and all other institutions in society. Government, and only government, decides when initiatory force can be used legally.  The effects of this uniqueness are subtle because they're usually taken for granted in everyday life. It's normal to be law-abiding, and thus to have little reason to fear government-authorized force. In a well-governed polity, the only groups of people who intuitively know the uniqueness of government are either in government or in the criminal class.

The above depiction of a well-governed polity is somewhat ideal. In the real world, where laws rule people but are also made by people, there is a tendency for law-abiding people in the private sector to take notice of the essence of government. It's evident to anyone who's faced the threat of something they enjoy being made illegal. One of the deplorable tendencies of governments, regardless of type, is to make criminals out of roundly-disliked law-abiders.

Being thrown from law-abiding to criminal is terrifying, or at least unnerving, for a law-abiding citizen. That's why there have been so many political battles in history for fixed laws, which are easily complied with and understood by normal adults. It's also why there are so many procedural safeguards against changing laws secretly or rapidly. Fixicity of the law, plus enacting or changing it in the open, has been put into place so as to keep normal people from being continually afraid of government. Once this stability is broken, social chaos does tend to ensue – as does a "criminal attitude" rising up from the lower classes where the criminally-inclined are usually dumped.

So, it's no surprise that advocates of radical extension of government tend to be looked on as ineffectuals, idiots or hotheads…if not as something worse.

The above analysis applies to wholesale initiation of laws. Similar difficulties crop up with the wholesale repeal of laws too.

Although political moralizing tends to be frowned upon in a mature democracy, most people do use their conscience as an aid in staying law-abiding. "If it's illegal," they reason, "it must be [morally] wrong" in some way. Those ways are usually specified, especially for children when being taught to heed the law by their parents. "If you deal drugs, you're poisoning people." "If you partake in underage sex, you're of the Devil." "If you sell stocks without a license, you're stealing from people." Etc. These associations may be debatable, but they do keep people on the straight and narrow.

This political fact makes repealing laws a difficult business. Even if a law is objectively unjust, it'll still be widely believed to interdict immoral or horrendous acts. Everyone who refrains from illegal prostitution or johnnery, because "it hurts and exploits women," is going to suspect, if prostitution is legalized, that it's become sort-of okay to hurt or exploit women. Not consciously, but unconsciously. That belief, formerly used as a self-control idea, isn't going to be extinguished from their psyche; they'll still be influenced by it. It's the same for other laws, whether just or unjust.

Thus, the risk of causing social chaos not only inheres in wholesale law-passage, but also in wholesale repeal. It's of little wonder why the law-making apparatus grinds so slowly, why a once-passed law might as well be permanent unless it's widely flouted with little effect. The art of political reform definitely includes picking one's spots. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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