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.