Why do we call it 'reform'

Posted: Feb 15, 2002 12:00 AM
Reformers have an unfair advantage: the word "reform." For example, this week the House of Representatives passed the Shays-Meehan campaign finance "reform." I put those quotation marks around reform because I think the legislation makes things worse, not better. You see, according to my dictionary, reform means "to improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects." It also says the word can mean "to abolish abuse or malpractice," as in the phrase "reform of government." In other words, the so-called reformers always steal first base by using a word that means "to make better." Newspapers and newscasters refer to "campaign finance reform" -- and a zillion other "reforms" -- without ever using quotation marks or qualifiers. In effect, they are editorializing in favor of a proposal just by using the word. Opponents of reform are, by definition, opposed to making things better. Substitute "improve" or some other synonym for reform in any news article, and you'll see what I mean. "Democrats tried once again to improve the campaign finance system, but Republicans vowed to fight any measure that would make it better." Of course, this is just a small fang belonging to a very big dragon that conservatives have been unable to slay for centuries -- the widely held conviction that "progress" and "change" mean the same thing. St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and countless others have meditated long and hard on the pernicious belief that anything new is inherently better. One of the "canons of conservatism," according to Russell Kirk's seminal book from 1953, "The Conservative Mind," is the "recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress." I think Chesterton said it better when he lamented that "progress is the mother of problems." If that's true, then "reform" is the father of problems. Indeed, many of the problems screaming out for reform were actually reforms themselves. Remember all the screaming about the independent counsel? Well, that position was a reform too. Rent control was supposed to make housing more affordable in places like New York City. Instead it made housing more scarce and therefore more expensive. Anti-cronyism reforms created our professional government bureaucracy. Mandating better mileage for cars not only resulted in lighter -- and therefore deadlier -- cars, but it also launched the market for gas-guzzling SUVs, which, as "light trucks," are exempt from efficiency regulations. Last year was the first time Americans bought more trucks than cars. Neo-conservatives call this "the law of unintended consequences." Planners and reformers demand implementation of A to fix B, but they are oblivious to the effects on C, D, E, F ... and the rest of the alphabet. Child safety caps? Kip Viscusi, a researcher at Harvard, argues that they kill more people than they save (and I don't mean deaths from trying to open the aspirin during a hangover). Parents became overconfident about the safety of prescription medicine, because of the caps, and are more likely to leave them where kids can find them. My own wife, Jessica Gavora, has just completed a book, "Tilting the Playing Field," on the perverse consequences of Title IX of the 1972 Civil Rights Act. The "reform" requires schools to have parity between men and women in college athletics. The idea was to get more women involved in sports. The result, though, has been the mass closures of men's collegiate sports teams in order to have numerical "equality" between the sexes. The National Wrestling Coaches Association is suing the U.S. government over this because college wrestling could become extinct in a few years. Men's baseball at Boston University, hockey at Kent State University and swimming at the University of New Mexico have all been killed by Title IX, even though women aren't being denied access to sports. It's the men who are being denied in order to maintain the right girl-boy balance. But there will be time for me to peddle my wife's book another day. I haven't even mentioned "soft money," the filthy flaccid lucre destroying our democracy. People forget that soft money was a reform too, one of many -- along with PACs and the like -- that came out of the "Watergate reforms" of the 1970s. These new regulations, which advocates term "campaign finance reform," will merely make the system more Byzantine and create new categories of "outrageous" behavior by politicians. I don't know precisely how it will happen. But I predict with metaphysical certainty that we will hear pleas for the reform of these latest reforms. In the not too distant future. My solution to all of this is simple. You might even call it a very modest reform. You see, there's another word in my dictionary called "re-form." It's got that nifty little hyphen. This word simply means to form again or change from one form to another, as in I re-formed my ball of Silly Putty. Judging from history, I don't think we should assume any change in the law is an improvement or a "reform" without the hyphen. We can only know if a change is an improvement over time. So until then, we should just call it a re-form. But I'm not holding my breath while I wait for that hyphen.