Years ago, at the beginning of my career as a political scientist, I learned about incrementalism.
That describes the gradual changes that generally occur in government.
I made my contribution to the subject by examining government spending. I found that governments that spent more or less, and were more or less generous in the provision of public service had been--compared to others--like that for several decades. All governments' spending increases in absolute amounts, due to inflation and population growth. However, high- and low-spenders tend to remain high- or low-spenders
Budgets and service levels are highly correlated with economic resources. The citizens of rich regimes generally enjoy better services, longer lives, and higher living standards than those of poor regimes. (The US is a notable exception, due to an unusual antipathy to government and taxation.) Economic change is also incremental. There are few cases of poor regimes suddenly becoming rich.
Since then, I have seen the same principle in most governmental actions, and have thickened my understanding of the process and its implications.
Policy is an accretion of actions, reflecting the balancing of demands from different interests. No interest gets all that it wants. Domestic peace requires a sharing of resources. Activists demand more for their concerns, but policymakers do what they can to keep most voters happy.
That generally means no dramatic changes in what governments do from one year to the next. There may be changes that continue in the same direction over the course of years, with results that do amount to significant change. However, dramatic change seldom occurs quickly.
One implication of incrementalism is distrust of politicians. They promise more than they deliver, and lead to the popular views that "they are all the same," and "you can't believe any of them."
The reality is that politicians who become policymakers cannot deliver more than a small portion of what they promise, without taking the difficult route of squeezing more resources out of an economy that is growing incrementally, or the even more difficult route of taking resources away from existing programs serving alert voters.
The model is most easy to conceive for a democracy, but also works for autocratic regimes. Rulers with a monopoly of power risk their jobs--and their heads--if they depart too sharply from what their regime provides and demands.
Note the frequency of the term "generally." Occasionally there are dramatic changes; sometimes revolutions, but not too often. Usually there are promises of reform, with only a small incidence of the promises actually implemented.
Politicians must sound innovative in order to garner support. Yet resources are limited. Change may occur in a few programs chosen for emphasis, but the status quo will prevail elsewhere.
Foreign policy also shows the influence of incrementalism. Stability is the norm, and woe to those who are overly heroic.
Witness the problems brought to the Middle East by the dramatic efforts of Al Quaida on 9-11 and the subsequent US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The current occupant of the White House is playing a more cautious game. He may have learned from the adventures of his predecessor. Caution in dealing with Iran and Syria reflects, in part, an effort to avoid the unknown repercussions of messianic actions.
Don't make things worse is the prime norm.
Israel's leadership may decide that breaking the status quo with respect to Iran is worth the risk, and better than accepting the dithering of other western governments. If so, it will have done so cautiously, after extended discussion and no shortage of reservations.
Jews learned long ago that waiting for the messiah was more appropriate than accepting a messiah, the latest prophet or guru who promised to remake the world. Jews subjected candidates to intense scrutiny, and none of them passed muster. The list of those rejected begins with various pagan emperors, then you know who, and goes on to Mohammed, Sabbatai Zvi, and Martin Luther. Each confrontation has been costly, especially in the cases of rejected messiahs or prophets who had numerous followers among the Gentiles.
Currently the dramatic ideas rejected hereabouts are to stop settlement activity, withdraw settlements, and do what is necessary to make peace with the Palestinians.
Lots of Israelis, overseas Jews, and Gentiles claiming to be our friends continue to press for change, but the support given to Benyamin Netanyahu in recent polls, and the emphasis of left-wing Israeli parties on domestic social issues suggests that the status quo with respect to Palestinians is the favored option.
Will the future tolerate a continuation of the status quo involving us and the Palestinians?
We'll have to wait and see. Prophets certain of Armageddon have failed to convince enough of the leadership or enough of the electorate.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 define the status quo.
The prior status quo was that resulting from the War of 1967. Between 1967 and Oslo, the IDF's civil administration was the government of the West Bank and Gaza.
Oslo provided the Palestinians with administrative autonomy in substantial areas of the West Bank and Gaza, and promised to move in stages to full peace.
Despite the claims of frustrated leftists that Oslo failed, and is dead, the Oslo Accords worked, are are still valid, at least to an extent. They did not produce a peace equivalent to that between the US and Canada, but have approached that currently prevailing between the US and Mexico.
Oslo provided autonomy to the Palestinians, which has held for close to 20 years. Palestinian authorities are responsible for social services, taxation, and domestic security in much of the West Bank and all of Gaza. Israel's forces enter Palestinian areas occasionally and briefly when its security demands it. Economic development is proceeding in both parts of Palestine. Living standrds are increasing, Israel is relying more on Palestinian security personnel in the West Bank, and Palestinians appear wary of heroic actions urged by activists. A prominent item in Ha'aretz carries the headline, "Palestinians struggle with apathy." (May 4, p. 3) When the Palestinian leadership was promoting its recognition by the United Nations last Fall, an article in the Los Angeles Times headlined apathy in the West Bank.
A slogan of the left is that Israel must agree to a two-state solution, or face a one-state solution, including all of Palestine and Israel, where the Palestinians will eventually dominate.
Israelis leaders and population have shown ample indications that they will reject a one-state solution, and neither the Palestinians nor the international community has shown the will or the teeth to enforce it.
If Arab spring, summer, winter, fall, winter and again spring has demonstrated anything, it is that the Arabs of Israel live better than Arabs under Arab rule. They would live even better if they could bring themselves to create centrist political parties that trade support and participation in the government for constituent benefits. Their cousins in the West Bank and Gaza appreciate the benefits of the status quo over the prospects of another tussle with Israel.
My findings of incrementalism a half century ago have led me to caution in politics. While I do not oppose all change, I am wary of heroics, and loath messianics. It is easier to see the reasons for what exists than to be certain of what change will bring. We all know the value of campaign promises. Sometimes we vote to give change a chance, or to rid ourselves of incumbents who have proven themselves incompetent, evil, or corrupt. Change occurs. Often it is welcome, but generally it is incremental.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at May 05, 2012 06:33 AM