There are (among many others) four ways of thinking about a word’s usage: how it is actually used, how it is supposed to be used, how it ought to be used, and determining the real effects of its use. The first two are easy enough to figure out – you either listen or you get a dictionary. The third and fourth present something of a challenge – what is the word doing? How ought we change our use of a word in order to boost or change its effects?
Take “reform” as an example. It means to change something in order to improve it, little by little. If you listen to the news or listen to your congressional representatives, you’ve heard that there’s reform of health care taking place in Washington right now – it retains much of the old way, but most people will be covered by health insurance, people will be healthier, and the American Dream is preserved.
Of course, this is only part of the reform – the other part involves huge profits to insurance companies in the form of mandatory plan purchasing for many, and subsidies from federal tax revenue in order to keep the costs down for the people being forced to buy. In other words, the real reform is that the dominance of insurance as a form of health coverage will be not only reinforced but also expanded.
Another case: campaign finance reform. Over the years various attempts have been undertaken to reform rules for funding campaigns in order to make them more fair and free from bias. As a result, money has become the legal equivalent of free speech. In addition, corporations have become legal persons not only in terms of how they do business, but also in terms of how they are allowed to advocate for candidates publicly. As of last week’s Supreme Court decision, corporations can spend freely for or against a candidate.
In these and many other cases, “reform” is used in order to convey the idea that some system is getting better, that mistakes are being fixed. However, the actual effect of the word is to gloss over the fact that the change is nothing more than a reinforcement of the status quo. In a certain sense it’s even used correctly. The reform improves profits and strengthens corporate control of the markets and our political economy.
So how ought “reform” be used? Further, what should its effects be?
The word derives from a Latin “re” meaning again, and “formare” meaning to form, just like it sounds. Literally it meant to form again into something new and better. It is much stronger than the piecemeal connotations of today’s English derivative – it is to drastically change a dysfunctional system into a functional one.
Taking a hint from this older meaning, “reform” needs to mean a complete change in a system, not the little by little, baby step change we mean now. Its effect needs to be to make clear problems and reinforce real change, and not just cover up deeper failures to fix those problems, as it does now.
To put it succinctly, “reform” itself needs some reform.