Reform, In Theory and Practice

I don’t know if it is synchronicity or just my fevered imagination, but it seems as if two disparate posts among the many I read on the blogosphere often end up revealing a deeper truth than either can do individually.  Jane Galt has an interesting post with the amusing title of "A really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other".  It purports to be a post about gay marriage, but its best parts are an excellent explanation of the conservative interest in taking reforms slowly and carefully:

Social conservatives of a more moderate stripe are essentially saying that marriage is an ancient institution, which has been carefully selected for throughout human history. It is a bedrock of our society; if it is destroyed, we will all be much worse off. (See what happened to the inner cities between 1960 and 1990 if you do not believe this.) For some reason, marriage always and everywhere, in every culture we know about, is between a man and a woman; this seems to be an important feature of the institution. We should not go mucking around and changing this extremely important institution, because if we make a bad change, the institution will fall apart.

A very common response to this is essentially to mock this as ridiculous. "Why on earth would it make any difference to me whether gay people are getting married? Why would that change my behavior as a heterosexual"

To which social conservatives reply that institutions have a number of complex ways in which they fulfill their roles, and one of the very important ways in which the institution of marriage perpetuates itself is by creating a romantic vision of oneself in marriage that is intrinsically tied into expressing one's masculinity or femininity in relation to a person of the opposite sex; stepping into an explicitly gendered role. This may not be true of every single marriage, and indeed undoubtedly it is untrue in some cases. But it is true of the culture-wide institution. By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.

To which, again, the other side replies "That's ridiculous! I would never change my willingness to get married based on whether or not gay people were getting married!"

Now, economists hear this sort of argument all the time. "That's ridiculous! I would never start working fewer hours because my taxes went up!" This ignores the fact that you may not be the marginal case. The marginal case may be some consultant who just can't justify sacrificing valuable leisure for a new project when he's only making 60 cents on the dollar. The result will nonetheless be the same: less economic activity. Similarly, you--highly educated, firmly socialised, upper middle class you--may not be the marginal marriage candidate; it may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't mean that the institution of marriage won't be weakened in America just the same.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of the idea that gay marriage will weaken the current institution. I can tell a plausible story where it does; I can tell a plausible story where it doesn't. I have no idea which one is true. That is why I have no opinion on gay marriage, and am not planning to develop one. Marriage is a big institution; too big for me to feel I have a successful handle on it.

However, I am bothered by this specific argument, which I have heard over and over from the people I know who favor gay marriage laws. I mean, literally over and over; when they get into arguments, they just repeat it, again and again. "I will get married even if marriage is expanded to include gay people; I cannot imagine anyone up and deciding not to get married because gay people are getting married; therefore, the whole idea is ridiculous and bigoted."

They may well be right. Nonetheless, libertarians should know better. The limits of your imagination are not the limits of reality. Every government programme that libertarians have argued against has been defended at its inception with exactly this argument.

She then discusses Chesterton's classic caution about reform:

(Now, I am not arguing in favor of stigmatising unwed mothers the way the Victorians did. I'm just pointing out that the stigma did not exist merely, as many mid-century reformers seem to have believed, because of some dark Freudian excesses on the part of our ancestors.)

But all the reformers saw was the terrible pain--and it was terrible--inflicted on unwed mothers. They saw the terrible unfairness--and it was terribly unfair--of punishing the mother, and not the father. They saw the inherent injustice--and need I add, it was indeed unjust--of treating American citizens differently because of their marital status.

But as G.K. Chesterton points out, people who don't see the use of a social institution are the last people who should be allowed to reform it:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Now, of course, this can turn into a sort of precautionary principle that prevents reform from ever happening. That would be bad; all sorts of things need changing all the time, because society and our environment change. But as a matter of principle, it is probably a bad idea to let someone go mucking around with social arrangements, such as the way we treat unwed parenthood, if their idea about that institution is that "it just growed". You don't have to be a rock-ribbed conservative to recognise that there is something of an evolutionary process in society: institutional features are not necessarily the best possible arrangement, but they have been selected for a certain amount of fitness.

I am generally very receptive to this argument.  But I always feel like there is something missing from it. 

Minutes after reading Jane Galt's post, I read this post by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber.  Its general argument (especially as expanded by Henry in the comments) is that no matter how plausible the Bush administration's proposal to bring more transparency to union finances by allowing union members to find out where the political contributions are going sounds, they should be rejected because Bush doesn't have the best interests of unions in mind.  In the comments I wrote (not explicitly thinking about the Galt post):

This is actually a good point, yet the problem beneath it is somewhat self-contradictory. Modern Democratic administrations have no interest in reforming the huge problems with unions because unions and the Democratic Party feed off of each other for power. It is a fact of democratic government that institutions are most likely to be reformed by people who don’t like them, or only when people who like them are forced to reform them by people who don’t like them. You admit that reforms are necessary but you don’t like the political outcome of these reforms. You are unwilling to engage the detail of these (apparently good) reforms because you don’t like the administration’s motives.

I don’t care about the motives. This proposal would have been good under Carter or Clinton, it is good now. Workers should not be forced to join a union, forced to have union dues grabbed from their paycheck and also forced to allow the union to support a party they hate. The union-member already is allowed to have the political portion returned to him if he doesn’t like it. But without transparency he can’t ask for the money back because it is difficult to track the money.

Your complaint seems to be that unions won’t be able to support the Democratic Party as much if its members (many forced to be members by law) find out how much money goes to the Democratic Party.

That just suggests that unions support the Democratic Party far more than their membership would want.

He responded:

Your point about reform is a reasonable one – but is also not applicable in this case. The kinds of reform that you’re talking about are only going to happen when either (a) the putative reformers are also those whom we want to benefit from the reform, or (b) the putative reformers have interests that are somehow aligned with those we want to benefit from the reform. In the case at hand, those we would like to benefit from putative reforms are presumably the ordinary union members. They’re not the Bush administration. Nor do we have any reason whatsoever to believe that the Bush administration’s interests are aligned with those of ordinary union members.

I think Henry makes a category error confusing 'unions' and 'union members' which he technically distinguishes but does not differentiate.  He also confuses those who claim to be aligned with those who are actually aligned with particular interests.  But when I read that paragraph my problem with the Galt piece suddenly thudded in my head.  I think the bolded section of my comment was correct.  In the specific case of unions, the much needed reforms were never going to take place under Democratic leadership because they benefit too much from the current shady structure.  In the more general case, much needed reforms are likely to be proposed by those who don't like certain institutions.  But, but, but I also believe that Jane Galt and Chesterson were correct.  You don't want someone who doesn't understand why the fence was built to be put in charge of when and how to take it down. 


Someone smarter than me really needs to analyze how we can work this out.  My initial feel would be that people with a conservative temperament ought to be much more attentive to listening to those who want to change things and approach problem solving by not only trying to defend the status quo by showing what could go wrong with change, but also trying to figure out how to make the change work.  People with a more liberal temperament need to spend more time really understanding (in a non-dismissive way) why long-term institutions have existed the way they have so that if they see a change, they can also see how things might get screwed up.  This also would suggest smaller, measurable changes so that we can see the effect of things before they get out of control.  (I say non-dismissible because an all too common understanding of institutions liberals want to reform is along the lines of:  it was evil, it was patriarchy, they didn't really understand things, they were repressed.  Some of that can be true, but it is very likely that you are just not looking hard enough for the reasons.)  Unfortunately, most people don't want to restrain their natural temperament.  So in a democratically styled government this happens by having reforms proposed by people who dislike certain institutions and having the people who like them temper the proposed reforms. 

I guess this is just a cautionary note, no matter what side you are on. 

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at April 5, 2005 2:07 AM