Word for Wednesday: Reform

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.

18 thoughts on “Word for Wednesday: Reform

  1. The trouble is John, that every reform is going to be seen as desirable by some and undesirable by others.Hence,the reform of every program,institution or process is going to be slotted in scare quotes somewhere!

  2. I propose a triadic construction of political ideologies on “direction of change” criteria:
    Reactionary: theological/familyist- “back to the golden age”
    Reformist: logical/individualist – “here and now”
    Revolutionary: ideological/statist – “futurist utopia”

  3. john: I recall a debate among some colleagues some 10 years ago about the use of the term “reform” in the context of public sector reform. Some were concerned that reform had a pejorative tone – it implied that something was wrong and needed to be fixed – and suggested something like “innovation” would be preferable.

    I was reminded of this recently when I heard Prof. john halligan at UC summarise findings about public confidence in the public sector in various countries; Australia was one where there was comparatively little confidence in our public service as an institution; and it was suggested that this might indeed be because we have experienced almost continuous reform, with each change announced as such, for the last 25 years. Interestingly, and in support of your points, the need for “reform” has been advanced with equal vigour from both Labor and coalition governments, and the number of institutional changes is arguably greater from the Labor side.

    While I have no quibble with your proposed definition, I have considered whether I ought to to avoid using the term at all – because regardless of the definition the author might prefer, the term will inevitably carry a weight of presuppositions and prejudices on the part of any potential reader.


  4. I agree with Stephen. It’s become too hard, and I’ve junked the term altogether in my writing (except insofar as it’s part of the mentality/language of the actors themselves of course).

  5. I think the neutral approach works OK. Searching my blog, I find I’ve used reform without scare quotes both to describe policies I oppose as in radical free-market reform and to describe policies I support, as in democratic reforms in Turkey. I think this works OK provided you’re careful to flag the fact that you’re not presupposing that reforms are good.

    I guess you can always say institutional change instead, but it’s very stodgy.

  6. But how can we talk of the meaning of reform and change without talk of the most coherent theory of continually reforming change there is: namely, evolution.

    Reform is about changes in structure: given what is, what is better? Evolution is a system of mechanisms for finding precisely that.

    And evolutionary theory is neither left nor right, and I think that that is perhaps an important point for understanding the ongoing transmogrifications of labour and liberal, rebublican and democrat, and so forth. The fact that political polls matter surely means that political ideas don’t.

    Which brings me to my other point: John, do you know of any journal editors working their refereeing process as blogs? For I envisage a universe in which academics represent themselves in front of a blogspace jury (however constructed) and an editorial judge. The outcome of this Platonic/Socratic blogspace would be a publication or an acquital. (A production function for making productive choices.)

    This could make academic journals, and the real-time view of the growth of scientific knowledge, a media event. It might even be more efficient (i.e. the inverse of the editor’s problem of finding someone who might know something about the specific paper under review).

    Could blogs work as micro-constitutions in idea-processing space?

  7. John’s final definition of “reform” winds up sounding too broad to be useful. I’d favor adding to it a distinction somewhat like what Jack Strocchi suggested — that “reform” implies a moderate degree of change (either toward a new utopia or a remembered golden age), as opposed to defense of the status quo on one hand and the large degree of change of revolution on the other (I believe this is already the predominant usage in far-left circles, leading to a situation where “reform” is a pejorative even without scare quotes). That would fit jp’s comment on evolution — reform is gradual like classic evolution, unlike the revolutionary catastrophism of creationism.

  8. Jason, the term ‘evolution’ is typically used to imply an unplanned process. So, leaving aside issues about selection mechanisms, it corresponds, in policy debates to the notion of “organic development” favored by conservatives since Burke. As you’ll note from my entry on conservatism, I have some sympathy with this idea.

    The journal/blog idea sounds neat.

  9. Jack,
    your definitions lack practicaly. I would be a reactionary except there has been no golden age.

    I would agree with G.K Chesterton that the history of the world is proof of original sin.

    It therefore follows Utopia will never be reached hence one can never be a revolutionary!

  10. …to “make it clear that there is no implication of approval and disapproval.”

    Two points.

    1. To a jaded public philosopher that sounds like a positivist account of ethics. Right and wrong are emotional responses to a factual state of affairs.

    Such an account by Quiggin leaves out saying that economics are unfair because they give rise to inequalities in the distribution of income; or that cause massive unemployment; or they reduce the quality of life for the middle class etc.

    2.Honestly guys. I am disappointed. I naively thought the neo-classical economics had to do with improving happiness and/or wellbeing. I presumed that goal was the whole point of the exercise of acquiring enlightening knowledge and using that knowledge to inform public policy.

    I can see from the above that I am mistaken.

    But I am not shocked.I had suspected that positivism still ruled.

  11. Gary, I think you are barking up the wrong tree here. To say that a particular word like “reform” should be used neutrally doesn’t imply anything about a general ethical position. I’m not saying that I’m neutral about reforms – as I say quite clearly in the post, I favor some reforms and oppose others. In particular, as I observe in an earlier comment, I oppose radical free-market reform which I assume is what you’re talking about.

  12. I agree with John’s anaylsis but not his solution.

    The concept of reform had its heyday in the era of the Mills. To them it was inseparable from related ideas of progress and enlightenment. Progress, like reform, means moving toward something desirable. And what they desired was freedom and equality of opportunity. In the younger Mill’s case, economic growth was necessary only to a point.

    As John says, the consensus among reformers about what was desirable broke down in the middle of the twentieth century. In particular conceptions of freedom split: libertarians gave priority to freedom in the marketplace; social democrats placed more faith in democratic government to counteract the dysfunctional tendencies of markets.

    This is a problem. But I won’t accept a solution that requires me to recognise as reform the gradual and sytematic introduction of beard-enforcement (who wants to look like Ned Kelly?) or creationism in schools. What’s more, I promise that should I be converted to some fanatical religion that advocates these measures, I will still oppose using the term reform to describe them. I will be honest and call myself a regressive and a reactionary.

    Try again, please.

  13. Perhaps reform has simply lost it’s hyphen with use over time like re-educate. Maybe we need to think of it again as re-form(ie ‘to form again’)

  14. “Such an account by Quiggin leaves out saying that economics are unfair because they give rise to inequalities in the distribution of income; or that cause massive unemployment; or they reduce the quality of life for the middle class etc.”

    Gary, I will leave aside the fantasy that “economics causes massive unemployment” because it is hard to understand how you perceive this might happen. But you did pose that “economics are unfair because they give rise to inequalities in the distribution of income”.

    Whilst there is no doubt there will always be an uneven distribution of income, how does it follow that this is unfair? What exactly is a “fair” distribution of income?

  15. Conservationists and conservatives
    Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice1. Don correctly observes that this kind of argument can be used in opposition to reform, and is therefore inherently conservative. He mentions, as…

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