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Three Cheers For Gradualism
The case for incremental change in a radical age.
Radical activists on the left and the right don’t agree about much of anything these days, but they do seem to share a contempt for incremental reform. Bernie Sanders captured the mindset of both left- and right-wing radicals when he declared flatly, “Incremental change is not enough.”
But is this correct? Is bold change the only way forward? Are we living in an era that demands the radical transformation of American society?
We don’t think so.
We believe that incremental reform is the best way to address social problems in a climate where it is difficult to agree on basic facts, let alone expensive, large-scale government interventions.
What are the alternatives to incremental reform? For some people, the answer is that government should do nothing. But even those who are completely satisfied with the status quo should recognize that change is inescapable. As Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, the Italian author of The Leopard, once wrote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Others advance utopian schemes, such as prison or police abolition, that generate buzz on the internet but have almost no chance of real-world implementation.
But perhaps the most seductive alternative to gradual change is what Charles Lindblom, a political science professor at Yale and one of the leading theorists of incrementalism, called the “synoptic” approach, which seeks to fashion comprehensive solutions to problems, often driven by centralized planners. The fundamental weakness of this approach is that it requires access to high-quality information, agreement about underlying values, and effective decision-making on the part of government planners. In the real world, these conditions rarely, if ever, exist. Much more common are the opposite: bad data, furiously competing interests, and flawed decision makers subject to the same cognitive biases as the rest of us.
There are numerous advantages to gradual reform, in contrast to utopianism and comprehensive planning. Instead of pursuing broad, revolutionary change in a single master stroke, incrementalism focuses on addressing concrete problems in a piecemeal fashion. Following the scientific method, incremental reform allows for new ideas to be tested, evaluated, and honed over time.
Crucially, gradualists know how little they know. Anyone trying to understand a given problem these days is necessarily missing crucial information because there is simply too much information to process effectively. Gradualists acknowledge that, inevitably, errors happen. Building on this insight, an iterative, incremental process allows for each successive generation of reformers to learn from, and improve upon, their predecessors’ efforts.
Critics of incrementalism often argue that it is timid or slow or a de facto endorsement of the status quo. But experience indicates that small changes, compounded over time, can add up to something significant.
One example is Social Security, the single largest government program in the United States, costing over $1 trillion a year, and possibly the most successful anti-poverty initiative ever created. This massive government program, one of the linchpins of the New Deal, did not emerge fully-formed, but was instead the product of deliberate, cautious incrementalism. Guided by two low-key government bureaucrats, Social Security was carefully nurtured for 15 years, paying out only modest benefits to recipients. Indeed, it was explicitly developed as an alternative to much more radical, grassroots alternatives.
While some gradual improvements, like Social Security, take decades, incrementalism is also, paradoxically, capable of delivering quick results. According to Daniel Herriges of the nonprofit Strong Towns: “Incrementalism entails a bias toward quick action over exhaustive planning: you take the next, easiest action to address the immediate situation you’re facing, and you take it right now. You don’t wait to have the whole road map to your policy goal laid out for you.”
Moreover, incrementalism has the virtue of being democratic. The goal of incremental change is typically to encourage experimentation, to let a thousand flowers bloom, rather than insisting that there is only one true path to change and attempting to exercise centralized control of its implementation.
But if there is one idea that serves as the intellectual foundation for incrementalism, it’s that human beings, who always face severe cognitive, conceptual, and political constraints, cannot operate according to a comprehensive ideal. Instead, they take shortcuts and seek to reduce their decision-making burden into manageable chunks. They do so not out of an excessive fealty to the status quo but because it is the best way to actually get things done in the real world.
Unfortunately, incrementalism has become unfashionable at the precise moment when we need it most. Thanks in no small part to Twitter and Facebook, our political conversation at the moment seems to veer wildly between two poles—expressions of hopelessness on the one hand (climate despair, Afropessimism), and advocacy for disruptive agendas that have little chance of implementation in real life on the other (calls for implementing socialism and passing the Green New Deal or closing our borders and withdrawing from NATO).
Make no mistake: we still need dreamers and visionaries and rabble-rousers who want to pursue moon-shot goals like curing cancer and ending hunger. But our default setting should be to admit the obvious: our problems are big and our brains are small. Incrementalism is nothing less than the endless, ongoing effort to alleviate injustices. It is a way of greeting the world in a spirit of optimism even in the face of the daily conflicts, disappointments, and tragedies that life throws at all of us. And it is our best hope for continuing to improve the world even in an age of radical rhetoric.
Aubrey Fox is the executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, the city’s main pretrial services and research agency.
This article is excerpted with permission from Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age by Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox, which will be released in March. Copyright @2023 by Oxford University Press.
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