What Exactly is a Reactionary?
Many people are charged with being a reactionary. It is taken for granted that being labeled as a reactionary is a negative thing. However, the label is tossed around without much consideration given to the meaning, either by the one leveling the charge, or the one receiving the opprobrium.
The dictionary defines is thusly: “(of a person or set of views) opposing political or social liberalization or reform”. So, it would point us toward the idea of someone who stands in the way of progress. You can see why someone would not want to be labelled as that. As is always the case in these type of situations the advantage is to the person who first levels the charge.
In the popular usage of the term, as seen on Wikipedia:
In political science, a reactionary or a reactionist is a person who holds political views that favor a return to the status quo ante, the previous political state of society, which that person believes possessed positive characteristics absent from contemporary society.
It likely comes from the French Revolution and the reaction to it by more conservative factions. Indeed, as the historian Crane Brinton pointed out, most revolutions generate a reaction of some kind. The key here is to realize that the return to the “status quo ante” represents a return to some imaginary earlier era. It is a kind of hyper nostalgia. Like all nostalgia it is more myth than reality. Let’s turn to the ultimate reactionary force in society, the government.
Government & Its Clients
We can for purposes of this essay set aside the ideological and mythological justifications for reactionary policies. These run the gamut from some idealized Rousseau-like “state of nature”, which is favored by the left, to an idealized picture of American homogeneity that supposedly existed circa 1955, until the 1960s came along and ruined everything, favored by the right. The 1960s themselves represent a reactionary ideal for the aging liberals of the day, that is, when they are not fomenting war all across the globe.
The purpose of this essay, however, is to explore the reality that the state is in and of itself a reactionary force, regardless of the ideological and tribal justifications used to promote its use.
People in general, and individuals working within government act to replace the current state of affairs with what they perceive will be a better state of affairs. In the specific case of government employees they are seeking an income, status, power, control. It is true that many outside of government want these things too. The key difference is that outside of government you need to gain cooperation and engage in voluntary exchange. You don’t have a monopoly on legal violence. I am not denying the existence of criminals. However, the rate of depredation of criminals pales in comparison to the mulcting that government engages in daily.
So, if government employees want all of these things, then how do they acquire them? They do engage in a form of “exchange”. That is they trade the resources necessary to get and maintain political power with the goodies these supporters want. Everyone who lobbies and influences the government is seeking this exchange. These groups may be businesses, labor unions, environmental zealots, or the religiously motivated. Regardless of the motivation, these are the clients of the government.
The salient fact about these clients is that they are all existing actors. Call them “stakeholders”, clients, whatever, they are all current market participants. All of them have a stake in the status quo. They may be lobbying for a new policy, but it is to keep them profitable, or cement a policy in place forever. All this comes at the expense of the larger economy and society.
New entrants onto the economic and political scene do come along, as change cannot really be stopped (as I will discuss below). However, the first thing that these new actors want is an enforced status quo. They have become successful, now they want to protect themselves against any further change.
This leads to a brief discussion about revolutions. Yes, from time to time they do occur. Sometimes, they represent a true bottom to top reversal of fortune as in the case of the French and Russian Revolutions. The notable fact about these and all similar revolutions is that once in power, the newly minted leaders want no more revolutions-that is, they want an enforced status quo. Even US history follows this pattern. One of the first things the victorious colonists did was outlaw any further revolts.
In more mundane matters of business and economic matters this pattern also holds true. The standard history of the Progressive Era of the early 20th. century claims that the progressives stood down big business for the benefit of the masses. Yet, in a stellar history written in the mid-1960s, Gabriel Kolko showed how in reality large business used the government to shut down competition and consolidate their economic position. The book is The Triumph of Conservatism. The author goes into great detail about how this was done, and it illustrates the point with great clarity.
Closer to our day stands the example of the computer industry. It was indeed innovative and even revolutionary. Yet over time as major winners emerged like Microsoft and Oracle, as well as others, they eventually sided with those who claimed a “need” for responsible regulation. Here is a post from Microsoft’s own blog in 2018 advocating for regulation. The reason they are doing so, as well as others like them, is that they have an established revenue stream, and the critical mass to be able to afford compliance with such regulation. New startups and unformed companies do not. Those two latter groups have zero impact on government because they either don’t exist yet or lack the resources to trade anything of value to the government.
The same is true of social media companies. Here is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg calling for more regulation. This article makes clear that Zuckerberg is seeking to burden young possible competitors with compliance costs that they cannot afford. We have seen the same with Twitter, at least before Elon Musk bought it.
In an area that has changed recently we see the beginnings of a desire to protect the status quo. Environmental activists have convinced many that we need to change to all electric vehicles as well as non-fossil fuel sources like solar and wind. A dissection of these awful ideas will have to wait. For now it is important to note that it is the existing car companies, and energy producers that are writing the rules and seeking the legislation to protect their place in the market. We have seen subsidies for these projects at the federal and state level, and this primarily benefits existing market participants. It is all about protecting their status quo.
Think of government as a dam on a river, built without any thought as to what the consequences of this dam will be. In time the pressure of change will burst this dam, but in the meantime, the dislocations, and lost opportunities create serious social, political, and economic problems.
An Oasis of Stasis
All of these examples, and many more, are nothing but old-fashioned protectionism, both foreign and domestic. Protecting the status quo is what gives rise to calls for tariffs. Even when a seemingly “progressive” group gets legislation passed to regulate an industry, that industry soon gains control of the regulatory apparatus and turns it to its own status quo benefit. The process is known as regulatory capture. One would be tempted to call this arrangement a symbiosis, but the more accurate term is incestuous. This capture protects existing market participants and early incumbents to the detriment of the rest of the economy.
All of this governmental activity generates a great deal of social and economic harm. It creates a rigid marketplace whereby existing entities are forcibly held in place. In an unhindered market there would be more turnover in the marketplace, with new entrants more regularly replacing aging and less agile competitors. That this is not allowed to happen because of government interference results in scarce resources becoming “stuck” in companies and sectors that are less efficient and do not reflect true consumer desire. All of this wastes capital (just a fancy name for tools), and thus retards wealth creation.
Imagine if the then “stakeholders” had been allowed to vote in 1900 on the future of the automobile and the airplane, or in 1940 on the computer, or the 1950s on the polio vaccine, and you begin to sense the magnitude of the risk of reactionary stasis.
Additionally, all of this creates unrighteous winners and losers. These winners and losers are determined in the coercive political sphere, not the voluntary marketplace. People are not stupid, they see how some get ahead and stay ahead and this breeds deep resentment. It also generates class division, as this stickiness keeps social mobility lower than it would otherwise be, which over time rankles those so stuck. It all comes, with great justification, to be seen as a rigged game. This over time lays a foundation for a potentially violent outcome. A dam bursting.
Trust in Change
So, what are a faithful people to do? First, trust in the change that is coming anyway. All of God’s creation from the very beginning has been an unfolding series of changes, both natural and human. Everything will change, to try and stop this is futile and damaging. It will only increase social violence and leave humanity spiritually, morally, and materially poorer. We need to recognize government as the agent of stasis and reaction, and liberty as the agent of change and growth.
The way to deal with change is not to allow existing participants or “early incumbents” to rig the game so they no longer need to compete, but to embrace the voluntary cooperative marketplace. This will allow change to proceed where society really wants it to, and it will maximize our material wealth, and minimize socially destructive behavior.
The West knew this truth once, and we had better relearn it in a hurry. We can draw upon this heritage, which saw the West break free from over 5000 years of mostly miserable human existence and make a radical break with the past that saw a massive upswing in human well-being by every important metric.
All of creation changes, so we know that God is good with this. We should not attempt to play God by resisting cooperative change that only enriches the unrighteous, who do not want to earn their keep. In response to God’s gifts of grace upon grace we should allow the world to change, but not our hearts. We should anchor ourselves in God’s love and Jesus’s example. This will turn us to a fearless embrace of change that will give us a shot at a better outcome for all of God’s children. So the next time you run into a reactionary (sometime today most likely) respond to their desire to stop change, or return the world to some “idealized” place, by telling them, nah, we’ve been there, done that, let’s go somewhere else and try something new.
Praise Be to God