Reform and its enemies

The biggest enemy of reforms worldwide is conservatism. Conservative ideas provide a false sense of stability. In all societies, reforms create the conditions for the redistribution of power and wealth. The stability promised by conservatives appears precious, particularly among people in developed societies that stand to lose a lot in case of a failed reform.

Reforms may indeed carry some degree of risk, but conservatism is the safest way to failure. In an ever-changing world, the only way to ensure disaster is to stand still. Conservatism’s tactical advantage is that failure comes in portions so small that hardly raise much concern. Reforms on the other hand provide a break with idle continuity. Even well-meaning observers are skeptical when they are not convinced about the benefits.

However, the benefits of a reform (as well as the drawbacks) are exposed via open debate. You make proposals and counterproposals, you seek compromise and counterbalancing benefits for the worst-hit, you try to maximize social consent. But here lies the second biggest threat of reforms: populism.

Consulting inevitably increases the complexity of the political process. By its nature, the democratic process is complex. Once you expand the number of people who participate in decision making, you make the system more sophisticated. It’s one thing to have a monarch decide on everything but it’s quite another to have a government that is accountable to parliament and which is controlled by the judiciary. The administration of the early 20th century and the administration of today – with all the independent authorities, the plethora of news media and the pressure groups – simply have different degrees of complexity. The so-called deepening and broadening of democracy requires more and more players in the process, but it is far more complex. And this is also its Achilles heel: The more you add to the complexity of the system, the more incomprehensible it becomes and more structurally unstable. The average citizen cannot comprehend the complex process behind a decision or the balances that need to be maintained when so many independent factors are brought into the procedure.

In a world that is already complicated, a progressive, reformist agenda promises to make things even more complicated. Progressive proposals are usually criticized as populist or incomprehensible. Things are easier for conservatives. All they have to do is point a finger at the present and raise the alarm about the future. They can even flirt with the past, speaking about the “inalienable values of the nation,” “the inalienable rights of a certain class,” or “the good old days when things were simple and clean.”