The Misuse of “Reform”

When Samuel Johnson said that ”patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he overlooked the value of the word “reform.” (I didn’t say this first, but I can’t discover who did.) Webster’s says that “reform” means “to put or change into an improved form or condition [or] to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.” So in political terms, a reform is a change for the better. But whether a particular policy change would actually improve things is often controversial. Unfortunately, the mainstream media typically use the word “reform” to mean “change in a liberal direction.”

It’s bad enough that they constantly use the phrase “campaign finance reform” to refer to laws that restrict individuals’ ability to spend their money to advance their political ideas. And of course every day we hear and read the term “health care reform” used to mean new subsidies, mandates, regulations, taxes, and restrictions on how health care is provided. Needless to say, there’s heated debate in the country as to whether such laws would constitute reform.

And now the Washington Post gives us this prominent headline (page 3, upper right):

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Gun Reform

The story makes clear that what the mayors want is what used to be called “gun control” – more power for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the creation of an “Interstate Firearms Trafficking Unit,” more restrictions on gun shows, more data collection on individuals.  No doubt anti-gun strategists have discovered that “gun control” is an unpopular term, so they advise advocates to use terms like “gun reform”; and reporters, headline writers, and editors at the Post go along with it.

Now try to imagine this story in the Washington Post:

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Media Reform

A new report from a national coalition of mayors urges President Obama to adopt dozens of reforms to help curb media excesses, including steps to crack down on problems with unauthorized leaks, the creation of a federal interstate media monitoring unit, new rules on media concentration, a federal database of people who use hateful language in letters to the editor and online comments.

Hard to imagine the Post would blithely accept the term “reform” in that case, isn’t it? And I don’t think the Post and other mainstream media called President Reagan’s tax cuts “tax reform.” (They did use the term “tax reform” when the proposed policy involved eliminating loopholes and thus taxing more activities, along with a reduction of rates.) Nor, I think, did they call President Bush’s proposed Social Security private accounts “Social Security reform.” They should be equally careful when liberal activists dub their proposals “reform.”

Meanwhile, kudos to Mara Liasson of NPR, who in this story from Friday uses the terms “health care legislation” and “health care overhaul,” but never “health care reform.” I hope that was a conscious choice, in recognition of the fact that about half of Americans don’t think the current subsidy-regulation-mandate legislation is in fact reform.