The Radical Incrementalist

Award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch on the need for--and impossibility of--reducing the size and scope of government.

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Rauch: I don't tell my vote, my specific vote, but over time, my votes have been pretty much esoteric, like my writing. I feel very much emotionally like part of the marginalized middle. That isn't to say that all my views are wishy-washy and that I'm halfway between Republicans and Democrats, but I do feel myself to be one of these independent voters who is kind of left behind by a political system biased in favor of people who fit into neat boxes and have extreme views. And I vote like an independent.

reason: What's your analytical frame for saying this is a good politician or a bad politician, this is a good policy or a bad policy?

Rauch: I pay no attention to partisanship on the whole, except when we've got one party control and I pay attention to getting the other party in control. I pay very little attention to political label. I pay a lot of attention to principles. Some of them are too standard to talk about. I believe in liberty. I believe in equality.

reason: What do you mean by liberty?

Rauch: I mean what everybody means. I believe in the basic freedoms of the sort that the Founders laid out.

reason: OK. So, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that the individual be given as much discretion as possible to live how they choose.

Rauch: Yeah. I also believe, on the other hand, that stability and order are an important part of life and shouldn't be taken for granted. I fully understand the need for government to be around to do what it does. I'm also something of a Burkean, or a Hayekian. Which means I've come to have a lot of respect for institutions that have evolved in society over time. I'm well aware I may not understand why they do the things they do, and that if something's been around the way it has been for a long time, that doesn't make it immune to criticism. But I think it deserves at least a second or third look, so I'm no radical. I'm very anti-radical. It puts me in an odd position because I'm a big advocate of gay marriage, but I square that circle by saying the right way is to try it in a few states, to do it slowly. Remember, we're messing with an age-old institution. I'm very much in that square.

I'm a radical incrementalist. I believe in fomenting revolutionary change on a geological timescale. Life is long. We don't have to do everything right away. I'm a little bit of a fatalist about solving problems and reforming things for the sake of it. I think we have to be careful that a lot of reform is just movement.

reason: Are there times when radical change is called for?

Rauch: Yes, but they're pretty rare.

reason: What are examples where radical, immediate change is legitimate? Slavery?

Rauch: Slavery is something I've agonized over. Someone with my temperament would say that Lincoln was a lot closer to being right than William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, or other people [who called for immediate change], despite the price. Lincoln said, My first priority is to save the Union and slavery will die out on its own over time, so let's just prevent it from expanding. That would've been my position. In hindsight, I think that there are people who say that Lincoln was too conservative on slavery and that may be true, so I agonize over that. It was a terrible, terrible evil and it was historically almost unique in this country.

Civil rights in the 1950s and '60s was another case where a radical change was justified. But I think in fact we overshot a bit.

reason: In what way?

Rauch: I think affirmative action, in particular.

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