Roger’s Rules

Making Change: thoughts on I Corinthians 13, J.S. Mill, and Hillary Clinton

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, make change like a child. I remember, for example, a carnival at my summer camp. It was an educational as well as a entertaining exercise. Everyone was given a small stack of funny money to spend on the concessions. Under certain circumstances, however, you could increase your pile by sidling up to a fellow camper and asking him for change:

May I have two tens for a five?

And he had to fork over the specie if he had it. Many a naive youngster was ruined that afternoon, ending the day sadder but wiser about the perfidy of human nature. Why, even the counsellors were not above indulging in that three-for-one flutter.

I thought of those far off days while contemplating Mrs. Clinton’s recitation yesterday of her long, long experiencing “making change.” “I’m running,” quoth she, “on 35 years of change.” Who knew? In New Hampshire 7231 toddlers have booties (or maybe it is health insurance) because of the way Mrs. Clinton “made change,” while there were “1713.5 National Guard members who, because I, Hillary Rodham Clinton stab the air with my finger and took on the Pentagon, had free change, no, I mean free mind-numbing statistics of dubious provenance because of special interests change vetoed President Bush making change vote for me please. . .”

I can’t vouch for the total accuracy of that transcription. But I am struck by the prominence of the word “change” in this campaign. Mrs. Clinton deploys it like a hammer, Mr. Obama offers it up as a sort of sweetmeat. But for most of the candidates change is the holy grail, the unending mantra, the cynosure of their hearts.

Isn’t it time we offered a cautionary word or two about change? I am perfectly willing to admit that the Duke of Cambridge may have overstated things slightly when he announced that he was opposed to “all change, at any time, for whatever reason.” But readers of Roger’s Rules know that I am fond of Lord Falkland’s observation that “when it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.”

Why? One reason is that lasting cultural accomplishments are hard-won achievements that are easy to lose but difficult to recoup. Another reason is that the rhetoric of change encourages us to discount present blessings that are real for future promises that are uncertain at best.

The heat and velocity of a Presidential election campaign are not exactly conducive to patient deliberation. But it is worth stepping back for a moment to contemplate the paternity of the liberal obsession with change.

One important progenitor is the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill was an extraordinary and multifaceted figure, but for the catechism of modern liberalism the Mill that matters is the Mill of On Liberty (1859). The first thing to be said about On Liberty is that it is a masterpiece of liberal polemic. Its core ideas are as the air we breathe: unnoticed because ubiquitous.

Mill’s arguments and pronouncements about man as a “progressive being,” the extent of individual autonomy, the limits of acceptable moral and legal censure, the importance of innovation and (perhaps his most famous phrase) “experiments in living” are all familiar to the point of invisibility. Likewise his corollary insistence on the poverty of custom, prejudice, and tradition. Mill’s contentions on these subjects are nowadays less objects of debate than of reverence: moral principles that discussion is expected to presuppose, not challenge. As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed, “What Mill proposed as a bold new doctrine has come down to us as an obvious, axiomatic truth.”

But the success of Mill’s teaching in the court of public sentiment says nothing about the cogency of his arguments. In fact, Mill’s central arguments are open to–and have from the beginning been subjected to–serious criticism. Yet they have raged like wildfire through the Western world, consuming everything that stands in their path. Which means, among other things, that they exert an appeal quite distinct from any intellectual merit they may possess. (And which in turn may suggest something about the potential liability of being thought “intelligent” by Millians–as well as the possible advantages of what Mill castigated as “stupidity.”)

Throughout history, Mill argues, the authors of such innovations have been objects of ridicule, persecution, and oppression; they have been ignored, silenced, exiled, imprisoned, even killed. But (Mill continues) we owe every step of progress, intellectual as well as moral, to the daring of innovators. “Without them,” he writes, “human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already exist.” Ergo, innovators–“developed human beings” is one phrase Mill uses for such paragons–should not merely be tolerated but positively be encouraged as beacons of future improvement.

The philosopher David Stove called this the “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus” argument. Stove noted that “the Columbus argument” (as he called it for short) “has swept the world.”

With every day that has passed since Mill published it, it has been more influential than it was the day before. In the intellectual and moral dissolution of the West in the twentieth century, every step has depended on conservatives being disarmed, at some critical point, by the Columbus argument; by revolutionaries claiming that any resistance made to them is only another instance of that undeserved hostility which beneficial innovators have so regularly met with in the past.

The amazing thing about the success of the Columbus argument is that it depends on premises that are so obviously faulty. Indeed, as Stove observes, a moment’s reflection reveals that the Columbus argument is undermined by a downright glaring weakness. Granted that every change for the better has depended on someone embarking on a new departure: well, so too has every change for the worse. And surely, Stove writes, there have been at least as many proposed innovations which “were or would have been for the worse as ones which were or would have been for the better.” Which means that we have at least as much reason to discourage innovators as to encourage them, especially when their innovations bear on things as immensely complex as the organization of society.

The triumph of Millian liberalism shows that such objections have fallen on deaf ears. But why? Why have “change,” “innovation,” “originality,” etc., become mesmerizing charms that neutralize criticism before it even gets started when so much that is produced in their name is obviously a change for the worse? An inventory of the fearsome social, political, and moral innovations made in this century alone should have made every thinking person wary of unchaperoned innovation. One reason that innovation has survived with its reputation intact, Stove notes, is that Mill and his heirs have been careful to supply a “one-sided diet of examples.” It is a technique as simple as it is effective:

Mention no past innovators except those who were innovators-for-the-better. Harp away endlessly on the examples of Columbus and Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno, Socrates and (if you think the traffic will bear it) Jesus. Conceal the fact that there must have been at least one innovator-for-the-worse for every one of these (very overworked) good guys. Never mention Lenin or Pol Pot, Marx or Hegel, Robespierre or the Marquis de Sade, or those forgotten innovators of genius to whom humanity has been indebted for any of the countless insane theories which have ever acquired a following in astronomy, geology, or biology.

Mill, like our present-day politicians, never missed an opportunity to expatiate on the value of “originality,” “eccentricity,” “change,” and the like. “The amount of eccentricity in a society,” he wrote, “has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained.” But you never caught Mill dilating on the “improvement on established practice” inaugurated by Robespierre and St. Just, or the “experiments in living” conducted by the Marquis de Sade. (It is hardly surprising that, today, the phrase “experiments in living” is redolent of the fatuous lifestyle “experiments” of the 1960s; whatever else can be said about the phrase, Stove is surely right that it represented “a sickeningly dishonest attempt to capture some of the deserved prestige of science for things that had not the remotest connection with science”–principally “certain sexual and domestic arrangements of a then-novel kind.”)

Gird up your loins, friends! We are going to hear a lot more about “making change” before November 7, 2008 rolls around. It will be the one unchanging thing about the campaign. When you hear the word “change,” ask yourself whether the change proposed would really be a change for the better. And consider, as you do, these two things:

* Many of the changes Hillary Clinton is proposing depend upon certain confiscatory transactions similar to those indulged in at my summer camp: you’ll find yourself confronting Bob, the taxman, asking “May I have two tens for a five?” (Just ask yourself how Hillary proposes to pay for all those “holiday”–we mustn’t say “Christmas”–presents she proposed to distribute.)

* What St. Paul really said was “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” The question is, are we adults yet?