When ‘Reform’ Means a Process of Elimination

The shift toward reform as a matter of public policy came with the rise of industrial capitalism. By the early 20th century, middle-class Americans found themselves awash in social crises: overcrowded cities, political corruption, mass immigration, wild disparities of wealth. But they were also surrounded by new ideas about how to solve those problems, from a muckraking press to the budding expertise of social scientists, who promised that humans could understand and fix large-scale problems. From this mix came the idea of “reform” as a way to adjust society to cope with its new realities — and the image of “reformers” as a special breed of educated do-gooders. Crusading intellectuals like Jane Addams and John Dewey came to epitomize this type: privileged members of society who put their talents to work devising new ways to help the poor or to educate children, aiming to liberate the human spirit to reach its full potential.

Progressive reformers helped bring about tenement laws and income taxes, trustbusting and labor protections, women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. Some of these measures tried to rein in the capitalist beast, returning the country to an age of yeoman farmers and small-scale producers; others embraced the modern dream of organizing human activity in ever more rational, efficient ways. In either case, some Americans wanted none of it, and saw “reform” as perilously close to an elite conspiracy. The era’s conservatives insisted that human nature — and therefore human society — was irredeemably imperfect, and that too much mucking around with social legislation bred an overreaching, tyrannical government. Left-wing radicals often disliked such projects, too, insisting that the dribs and drabs of reform were a bourgeois project that only delayed what really needed to be done, which was obviously revolution. In her famous 1899 essay “Reform or Revolution,” the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued…

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