Change Is Not Reform

When John Randolph (1773-1833) was persuaded that certain politicians in the early 19th century were pushing America away from her roots as a Republic and toward a democracy, he cried foul. He opposed what he viewed as attempts to remove distinctions of class and rank, and thereby to level society.


Randolph clung to tradition, states’ rights, and the conservatism that Russell Kirk would praise him for defending over a century later, while simultaneously attacking America’s levelers head on. And when the proponents of democracy, and then broadened democracy, pushed for “change” in the name of reform, he fought as a man whose very life was at stake.

Change is not reform,” retorted Randolph, and so expressed a sentiment that conservatives from every era have shared.

During the century prior to Randolph, the renowned Edmund Burke fought similar strivings for “change” in England. It was 1770 when Burke gave Englanders his version of “change is not reform” by blaming the push for such change on the base passions of a people excited to class warfare and insatiability. He argued that complaints against a structured society, “[murmuring] at the present possessors of power …[and lamenting] the past,” were but “the necessary effects of the ignorance and [instability] of the [people].”

Both Randolph and Burke understood that the “change” their contemporaries pursued would not result in reforms from bad policies to good ones, but in a loss of liberty. More than anything, both men knew that “change” was just a catch-all term opening the way for governments to interfere with private matters in the name of leveling the playing field or shrinking the financial gap between rich and poor. And the only real benefactor in such a scenario would always be the government.

In the 20th century, Presidents Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) and Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) exemplified the conviction of Randolph and Burke.


Coolidge understood that “change” from a benign, small government to a more active and intrusive one would be damning to freedom. Thus he said: “There is no justification for public interference with purely private concerns.” He also understood that democracy tended toward collectivism, which in turn tended toward liberty’s demise: “Liberty is not collective, it is personal. All liberty is individual liberty.”

Two decades before being elected to his first term, Reagan fired preemptive strikes against this same deadly “change” by fighting to keep government in its place when Medicare was being established in this country.

As the program was being pushed through Congress in 1961, Reagan feared that the citizens who embraced it were unknowingly embracing socialism cloaked in liberal, egalitarian promises. He demonstrated this by highlighting the fact that proponents of Medicare were “[disguising the] medical program as a humanitarian project.”

If it were compatible with freedom, why did it have to be disguised?

In a recorded message aimed at turning the tide against what he had labeled “socialized medicine,” Reagan warned: “One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine.” In other words, Reagan recognized that subsidized health coverage for the elderly was not “change” for the better, because the taxation to fund it would both grow government and limit freedom.

Reagan’s efforts notwithstanding, Medicare was launched in 1965. And although many people now dependent on it may reject Reagan’s warnings as a bit extreme, they cannot question the fact that Medicare was at least a baby step toward the socialism he loathed. This was made clear when Medicare Part D was signed into law on December 8, 2003, under President George W. Bush. This newest medical entitlement, which was “the largest expansion of Medicare since [it] was created,” broadened the program so that it covers prescription drugs in addition to the hospital stays and doctor visits already covered under Medicare Parts A & B.


While Bush didn’t label Medicare Part D a “humanitarian project,” he certainly did describe subsidizing prescription drugs for seniors as “compassionate.”

Now, President Obama wants to spread the compassion around even further with health care reform that flows from his campaign for “change.” But this begs a question. If “change [was] not reform” when it meant growing government at the expense of freedom in prior decades and centuries, why should we believe such “change” is suddenly going to lead to reform in 2009?


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