The Fallacy of Change
September 9, 1999
modern political candidates profess to
favor change a one-word incantation that is almost
never defined. Bill Clinton ran on it in 1992, as John Kennedy had in 1960.
It suggests idealism and a mildly utopian attitude.
At bottom, change usually
signifies an increase in the power of the centralized state over the
decentralized private sphere of life, with a consequent decrease of
freedom. But politicians prefer to keep their rhetoric lofty and their
meaning vague, so the word sounds like a harmless and benign aspiration.
And the state keeps growing.
The modern state is, in C.S.
Lewiss phrase, incessantly engaged in legislation.
Passing laws that is, restrictions enforced by the state apparatus
of coercion is regarded as a form of production. A president who
doesnt get his way, legislatively, will reproach the
But there may be great virtue in doing
nothing. A corrupt society has many laws, a Roman sage
observed. Aristotle, Cicero, and other classical philosophers thought laws
should be relatively few, and seldom changed. They lacked the modern
view of politics as a method of social engineering; in their view, human
legislation should imitate the eternal natural law in its
stability and economy. The passage or alteration of too many laws meant
that legislation had lost its quasi-eternal character and too plainly
expressed the arbitrary will of the rulers.
Few people can keep up with written law.
They shouldnt have to. If the written law is basically the Ten
Commandments writ large, and in keeping with customary morality, you
can be a good citizen by leading a decent life, without undue study or
reflection. That ought to be enough.
But when laws become so numerous,
detailed, and technical that decent people find themselves running afoul of
them just by behaving in customary ways, something is seriously wrong.
Respect for law depends heavily on the sense that it has a certain
permanence, and this respect is undermined by any feeling that current
legislation is fickle. Only time and habit can make law seem
St. Thomas Aquinas argued that change as
such was suspect: To a certain extent, the mere change of law is of
itself prejudicial to the common good; because custom avails much for the
observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom,
even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law
is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, insofar as custom
is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in
some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the
extent of the harm done in this respect.
That is, change may sometimes be a
necessary evil. But its always at least partly evil, and its good
must outweigh its cost. To speak as if it were good in itself is idiocy.
One of the most ambitious examples of
change in American history was Prohibition the
attempt to make the United States a nation of teetotalers by legislative
fiat. It soon became obvious that it was a disaster: it was too far out of
keeping with the moral habits of the people, and created too many
criminals including corrupt enforcers of the law.
That government is best which
governs least. This wise adage means that good laws require little
actual enforcement, since most people will observe them spontaneously. A
law that has to be enforced against the entire population is doomed to fail
and is almost guaranteed to produce tyranny.
To many idealists, the
Soviet Union promised to be a paradise. I have been
over into the future, and it works, crowed Lincoln Steffens, an
American visitor during the 1920s. In fact, the Soviet experiment was
perhaps the most foolish and wicked enterprise in political history.
Basically, it made nearly everything illegal, while giving the state
limitless enforcement power. What had formerly been innocent
commercial exchanges became economic crimes, driven into
the black market and punishable by death.
The next time a politician promises
change, exercise your Second Amendment rights and shoot
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