By Peter J. Leithart
All over the world, governments are busily engaged in various kinds and degrees of reform. South Africa has repealed many of the “petty apartheid” laws that once restricted black advancement and maintained white supremacy. Mikhail Gorbachev’s criticism of past Soviet abuses and his (thus far) meager reforms have made glasnost common parlance in Western countries.
Some Eastern European countries have begun to follow the Soviet lead. In China, land has been redistributed into small, quasi-private farms, with resulting increases in agricultural production.
South Africa has been accused of making only cosmetic changes, reforms that change the surface appearance of South African society but leave the fundamental structures of oppression and injustice in place. the same accusation has not been raised as readily against China and the Soviet Union, but such an argument could easily be made.
For example, writing in Commentary about the state of Soviet letters, Walter Laqueur commented recently that the USSR needs, above all, a “cultural revolution,” something that the current regime shows no sign of permitting. Moreover, Christians are still in Soviet jails. In fact, without a thorough abandonment of communism, any “reform” in the USSR is, in the last analysis, sheer propaganda. (It is interesting in this connection that the basic meaning of glasnost is not, as the American media claims,“openness,” but “publicity.”)
Similar criticisms can be leveled against the Chinese agricultural reforms. It must be admitted that Chinese agriculture has made remarkable progress since the reforms were begun in the late 1970s. Yet the State continues to fix prices for many goods. Prices for staples in cities are suppressed, keeping the urban middle class warm and well-fed, but effectively stifling the incentive of farmers.
Technically, Chinese farmers can sell crops either on the free market or to the government, but in reality it is often difficult to shift to more profitable goods because the government arranges coercive “contracts” for staples. Without these“contracts,” no sane farmer would sell his produce at the artificially low government prices. The State also continues to be the de jure owner of all the farmland.
In short, the fundamental realities of Chinese agriculture – in particular, price-fixing and State ownership of land – have not changed.
In the Philippines, the “people’s revolution” has had discernible effects on attitudes, politics, and the press. Yet, James Fallows reports in The Atlantic that Filipino society is “the only non-communist society in East Asia in which the average living standard is going down.” This is not, he argues, due entirely to the corruption of the Marcos regime. Instead, just as Japan and Korea demonstrate that culture can make a country rich even if it is poor in resources, the Philippines illustrates that “culture can make a naturally rich country poor.”
All this raises the question: What is fundamental reform? In South Africa, democracy – one man, one vote, or, as Kendall and Louw have proposed in After Apartheid, “one man, many votes” – would be widely hailed as a fundamental reform. In the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China, privatization of land and abandonment of socialist planning would be recognized as fundamental reforms.
But do such reforms really touch the heart of social problems? Do even these kinds of reforms go deep enough?
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, American conservatives rejoiced. This was the beginning of fundamental reform. As time went on, however, many within and without the administration discovered that fundamental reform was easier to talk about then to implement. David Stockman saw his budget plans trashed to make political hay. Interior Secretary James Watts’ attempts to bring sanity to ecological issues were dashed to pieces on the reefs of media hype and distortion.
Spending increased, and the bureaucracy got bigger. Reagan is now reluctantly, hesitantly, and evasively talking about tax increases. We still have a Federal Department of Education. Few observers today would deny that whatever the Reagan revolution might have accomplished falls under the category of “cosmetic reform.”
In the face of widespread failure, many conservative activists have lost heart. They have concluded that fundamental reform is impossible. Their idealism has been shattered and they have become cynical, because they have learned “how the world really works.” As a result, they have become less activist.
The problem with such conservatives is that they were engaged in the wrong kind of activism to begin with. They were seeking to achieve fundamental social changes through political means. Their program was fundamentally statist, and thus conceded the presuppositions of the opposition. They were seeking to rebuild the walls of the city with sledge hammers.
Christian activism operates in an entirely different atmosphere than humanist activism, whether conservative or liberal. Christian reform is not basically political, though it has a political dimension. In fact, Christian reform is the only reform that is not cosmetic, because only the Christian gospel gets to the heart of social ills by getting to the sinful hearts of the men who make up the society.
Christians alone can avoid cynicism about the long-term chances of reform, because only the Christian can be sure that his work will be established if he faints not.
Reprinted with permission of Chalcedon Report, P.O. Box 158, Vallecito, CA 95251.