Sobran Column -- Fallacy of "Change"
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The Fallacy of “Change”

September 9, 1999

Nearly all 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. Lewis’s 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 doesn’t get his way, legislatively, will reproach “the do-nothing Congress.”

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 shouldn’t 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 venerable.

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 it’s 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 him.

Joseph Sobran

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