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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reason: And by affirmative action, you mean--

Rauch: Racial preferences. I mean racial preferences. Explicit racial preferences are not a good thing on the whole and if they were a good thing at one point, they're probably not anymore.

reason: What about free speech? There was a radical move away from a very censorious culture in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s, to one that's much, much more open in terms of free expression that is protected both by custom and law. You're a huge free speech advocate. Was that something that changed too radically or too quickly?

Rauch: I don't think it did change radically and quickly. I think it changed socially. It's pretty hard to get radical change without [use of either] private coercion or government policy. If what's happening is that the culture is loosening up and changing, that's not radical in my sense of the term. For example, women going to work. That happened very quickly in the society and you could call that radical in the sense that it's an important fundamental change from virtually no women in the paid workforce to most women in the paid workforce. But it wasn't shoved down society's throat by social engineers who thought it would be a great idea. It's something a lot of people did.

I've discovered that life brings lots of change all by itself. You really don't have to do that much to change the world pretty quickly. The world is pretty good at changing.

reason: Do you think the gay rights movement represents a similar--and rapid--change?

It's really nothing short of stunning, really, that you could go from, say, the Stonewall riots in 1969 to talking about gay marriage today. In the subsequent 35 years, there's an enormous amount of change. Did that happen too slow? Too fast? Just about right, for you? And some of that was legal, right? I mean, some of it was changing the laws-

Rauch: Most of it was cultural. I'm guessing that a lot of college students today would be amazed to know that in 13 states--I think--it was illegal to have gay sex three years ago. The law has been very much the lagging indicator. It's still the lagging indicator. It's still forbidding the military to hire gay people in uniform even if they want to. To me, the gay revolution--and it has been a revolution in the culture--is Exhibit A in what a good job the culture can do changing itself when people appeal to persuasion, to try to better their lives and change the world mostly from the bottom up because that's what happened there.

It also helps that there were challenges to these legal [regimes]. Cops used to enforce the oppression of homosexuals in a very, very savage way. Young people today just can't understand a world where you had high school assistant principals committing suicide because they were entrapped in a bathroom sexual encounter by cops with nothing better to do. That [sort of thing] used to happen all the time. It still happens occasionally, but a lot of what's happened with gay rights has been the simple opening of the hearts and minds of the American public as they've come to understand that gay people are not really so different from them. Once you've crossed that bridge, at least in the long term, not always in the short term, the compassion and reasonableness of the American public never ceases to amaze me.

reason: Your analysis in Demosclerosis and elsewhere is pessimistic in terms of reducing the scope and scale of government. What are the things that we need to do to right-size government. Is it doable or is it a lost cause?

Rauch: Right-sizing government, if you mean imposing some preconceived size that you or I or someone else might have, is impossible. Impossible, probably inconceivable and simply not going to happen ever.

When you get right down to it, there doesn't seem to be really much of a constituency in this country for reducing the size of government in painful or unpleasant ways. Even Barry Goldwater, when he ran for president, announced that he wouldn't cut any farm subsidies, for example.

Government is an enormous ecosystem. It is, in its way, as decentralized and unmanageable as the ecosystem out there in nature. You can change the input and you'll get some change in the output, but if I've learned one thing in 25 years in Washington, it's that there far too many interests and actors for any politician to do more than work the margins. But working the margins is very, very important.

In fact, it can be the difference between having a static and enfeebling government--like the government of Japan was until comparatively recently, until the Koizumi period--and a government that gets out of the way enough so that you have room for new technology, new ideas, and some reform. Those reforms are very important: welfare reform, transportation deregulation, tax reform. We'll do Social Security and Medicare eventually.

reason: Are you a booster of private accounts in health insurance, retirement and education? What's your favorite reforms for those big-ticket issues?

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