Reflections On Change

by Kevin McGehee
North Pole, Alaska
The Armed Genius Newsletter

Everyone knows that there is more than one degree of change - that it can range from trivial ("rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic") to fundamental or paradigmatic (some would say 'revolutionary'). A common error, of course, is to recognize only these two degrees, and to argue that any change that does not raze the entire pre-existing structure to its foundation, and reconstruct it anew (more to one's liking, presumably), is tantamount to a hastily applied additional coat of paint.

In fact there are several intervening degrees, and I think applying names to each degree might be helpful in understanding the value of the changes that have occurred, and will occur, as direct and indirect consequences of Clinton's 1992 and 1996 electoral victories.

For example, slightly better than "trivial" change (in which, for example, members of Congress are prohibited from accepting honoraria) is "superficial" change ("The era of big government is over," saieth the Great Prevaricator). Unlike trivial change, which has no significant effect on the status quo, superficial change has a noticeable - but deliberately temporary - effect.

The purpose of "trivial" change is to create the appearance of difference without making anything different; where anything is made different, alternative ways of pursuing business-as-usual are already planned, or even included in the change itself. "Superficial" change at least requires some time to pass before anyone is able to create a loophole, and may result in some irretrievable loss of the ease with which business-as-usual had been carried out. Nevertheless, in real terms superficial change, like trivial change, is essentially meaningless, and is often proposed in order to "cool off" the public until the previous status quo can be quietly put back into effect. The Clinton re-election campaign platform was a laundry list of proposals for superficial change.

When a proposed change has the effect of requiring those who benefit from the status quo to make serious revisions to how they conduct business-as-usual - and when it offers no hope of easily or quietly reinstating the old way - it's a "modest" change. Modest change is sufficiently serious in degree that it does have a significant and lasting effect on the status quo, but in structural terms it is akin to discarding the old window-mount air conditioner and installing a heat pump. The structure itself is not appreciably altered or improved, but the benefits are well distributed and everyone is at least a little bit happier than they were before. The record of the 104th Congress amounts to modest change.

On the other hand, change that gores enough oxen that it arouses significant opposition - because it does not merely inconvenience the status quo crowd, but may put many of them out of business or, at least, at a major disadvantage - is what I would call "significant" change. A number of things attempted but not completed by the 104th Congress fall into this category. In our system, under the present instantaneous communication circumstances, this degree of change will occur rarely, and then only when the status quo has worn out its welcome to a degree that the public is willing to overrule the opponents. Fortunately, a series of "modest" changes can, over time, amount to "significant" change - a fact the incrementalists on the Left understood decades ago (and if they rediscover it again very soon, they will begin to mobilize viciously against even "modest" change, with the eventual effect that they will at last wear out their welcome).

The remaining degrees of change are therefore largely hypothetical in today's climate, but I'll discuss them nevertheless. "Substantial" change involves extensive reordering of priorities, with the possible inclusion of new ones accompanied by the possible abolition of some existing ones. In the structural metaphor, this would amount to knocking out some walls and rearranging the internal layout of the building.

"Profound" change involves dismantling all but the basic load-bearing members of the structure and rebuilding the rest almost from scratch, in accordance with a new, or updated, design (or perhaps making use of new knowledge developed since the first design, while adhering to the original layout); in terms of a society or a political landscape, priorities may be subject to wholesale renovation, and whole sets of assumptions are tested and, if found wanting, discarded.

In history, "substantial" change occurred in the South during Reconstruction. However, the intention was "profound" change, which was not completed until much more recently. The changes that took place in America between 1775 and 1789 easily qualify as profound change.

Finally, there is "fundamental" change - a complete alteration of the basic paradigms that influence an entire civilization. In the true sense of the word "revolution," fundamental change is revolutionary. Unfortunately, in today's lexicon "revolution" refers mostly to abrupt change (even when it is actually modest, or even superficial), or to change brought about by force. Historically, very few changes brought about by force have been more than trivial. "Revolutionaries" generally intend not to overthrow an existing paradigm, but merely to replace those operating the existing power structure - with themselves.

When I speak of "fundamental" change as being revolutionary, I speak of changes such as the Industrial Revolution, or the rise of civilization itself. Although some force may have played a part in the establishment of the first civilized society, the changes that resulted were simply the natural consequences of the condition of civilization. As for abruptness, no fundamental change ever took less than a century to run its course, and to a certain extent the two examples I've cited are still ongoing. Much is said of a "postindustrial" revolution, or an "information" revolution, but these are not paradigmatic in character. At most, they might have a potential to constitute, over time, a substantial change.

Change, however, is cumulative. As long as some alteration of conditions is not reversed, it can contribute to additional changes that, taken together, can add up to profound or even fundamental change. If you study the Industrial Revolution you will understand what I mean, as it was in reality nothing more than a series of inventions and innovations, each amounting by itself to no more than a modest change.

If you set yourself the task of leveling Everest, you can try hitting it with nuclear missiles, and wind up poisoning yourself (and everyone else) without making much of a dent. Or you could let wind blow, and water flow, and plants take root, and eventually Everest will lie flat.

Our problem has always been a shortage of long-term thinking on our part, and an oversupply of it among our opponents. Let's please wise up.

Return to Port Of Call Home Page
Return to December 96/January 97 Table of Contents

Why did Titanic sink?
Why did Titanic sink? This is why Titanic sank!

Why is Pluto not a planet?
What happend to Pluto? Why is Pluto no longer a planet?