If there's a worse word in our political vocabulary than reform, I don't know what it is. We have all manner of reforms: tax reform, welfare reform, Social Security reform, education reform and health care reform, just to name a few. The unfolding presidential campaign will undoubtedly deluge us with more suggested reforms from both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Only recently one leading Democratic thinker wrote in the New York Times that Kerry could invigorate his campaign by "putting one crucial word ... at the heart of every speech: reform."
This may or may not be good advice for Kerry, but it's bad advice for the country. As a word, reform no longer performs the essential function of a word, which is to mean something. It has become a public relations tool -- a convenient label that partisans of all political persuasions slap on their proposals to claim the high moral ground. It's a packaging device. Reform is good; its opponents are bad.
By casting their agendas as reforms, political advocates don't aim to stimulate debate and discussion. They aim to suppress it. They aim to stigmatize adversaries as nasty, wrongheaded, selfish or misinformed. If you're in a debate, you want to be the "reformer" and you want the other guy to be the "obstructionist." Once you've achieved that, you're halfway to victory. You've shifted the contest away from substance -- an argument over principles and practicality -- and toward symbolism, where your symbol is superior.
The trouble is that as a society we need debates over principles and practicality. All reforms are not desirable, at least not to everyone. Some seem superficially desirable but have adverse side effects -- some predictable, some not -- that completely swamp any benefits. Some reforms are desirable, but they conflict with other goals that also are desirable. Choices have to be recognized and made, but once the debate disintegrates into a struggle between reformers and anti-reformers, this is less likely.
We have many examples of dubious reforms.
Last year Congress enacted President Bush's Medicare reform, adding a drug benefit. On one level, this was sensible. Since 1965, when Congress created Medicare, many private insurance plans had extended coverage to drugs; Medicare hadn't. But on another level, it was atrocious. It would increase the already vast costs of federal retirement programs for baby boomers. Choices existed. If they had been recognized, compromises might have emerged: some drug coverage, say, for higher Social Security and Medicare eligibility ages. None of this happened. Reform prevailed. Democrats complained mainly that Bush's plan was too stingy. The result is a significant worsening of the long-term budget problem -- the mismatch between spending commitments and taxes. Is that reform? (The drug benefit will cost at least $1.5 trillion in the program's second decade, says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, head of the Congressional Budget Office.) Or consider campaign finance reform. After Watergate, Congress passed legislation to curb "corruption" and "the appearance of corruption" involving political contributions. It has failed. Every new restriction on contributions inspires new evasions, because campaigns need and want money. Public cynicism hasn't lessened, because unhappy reformers keep complaining about the evasions and the "appearance of corruption." (Actual corruption has been hard to find.) The latest law, McCain-Feingold, has predictably created new evasions. Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission imposes complex restrictions on free speech and political association to prevent "independent" campaign spending from becoming illegal contributions. Despite all these problems, limiting campaign contributions remains a respectable cause because it's seen as reform. But exactly what is being reformed?
The truth is that, under the guise of reform, we often make matters worse. The reason that we're so seduced by reform is that it appeals to our national optimism. If something's wrong, we Americans think we can fix it. We're a nation of compulsive problem-solvers. But we don't often enough ask whether the problem is worth solving or whether the solution creates even larger problems. In these cases, we've (1) made the long-term budget outlook darker and (2) quietly eroded basic rights of free speech and political association for no real benefit. (The assault on the "appearance of corruption" is futile because reformers believe that large sums of political money are inevitably corrupting.) I am not arguing that all reforms -- all changes to the status quo -- fail. Many succeed dramatically. To take one example: On the whole, environmental regulation has worked. But most reforms, even successful ones, don't live up to exaggerated expectations. The reformist impulse, the late historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, "often wanders over the border between reality and impossibility." Because reformers habitually embrace utopian goals, results routinely fall short and breed disappointment.
To this old cycle of disillusionment has now been added something new. It's not just that reformers are frequently unrealistic. They've also become increasingly manipulative. Reform projects serve as vehicles for personal and partisan self-promotion. It's clever advertising to depict your adversaries as selfish, sinister or stodgy. Journalists do the same. I confess that I've attached reform to some of my favorite ideas.
What I'm arguing now is that our debates would be more candid, rigorous and productive if we abandoned the very notion of reform and concentrated on the actual virtues and vices of whatever is being proposed. Reform is a dangerous simplifier and filter, designed to screen out honest skepticism and dissent. The reform we really need is to drop the word altogether. Almost certainly, we won't get it.