Friday, November 8, 2013

Thoughts on Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991)

Albert Hirschman was the ultimate non-economist's economist.  Well-informed with regard to his own discipline, he was also intelligible to the non-specialist and willing to draw insight from the humanities, especially history.  As a humanistic economist, Hirschman was also willing to approach the arguments made in his discipline as themselves forms of political discourse-- empirically-grounded, perhaps, but still motivated by ideological and moral concerns-- in other words, not as purely "objective" restatements of verifiable facts and scientific laws.

There's been a bit of a Hirschman revival lately due to his passing in 2012 and to a major new biography and anthology, both released by Princeton University Press this year.  This has inspired me to finally get around to reading one of his acknowledged classics: The Rhetoric of Reaction (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1991)-- a study of the three chief rhetorical moves made by critics of social change over the last two centuries.  Hirschman defines these moves as "perversity," "futility," and "jeopardy" (he was fond of this sort of tripartite scheme-- see his Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, e.g.).  Broadly defined, these three options encompass every possible negative response one might make to a push for social change, because they all claim that social change will either achieve negative results or no results at all.

"Perversity" holds that a proposed change will have the precise opposite of its intended effect.  It will be "counter-productive."  It will trigger precisely the social crisis it is designed to avert.  Here Hirschman begins with Edmund Burke's condemnation of the French Revolution before moving on to Gustave Le Bon's critique of universal suffrage and thence to modern American conservatives' arguments against the welfare state (which usually hinge on the claim that welfare spending generates the very social maladies it is supposed to prevent, because it ties benefits to unemployment, single-parenthood, etc. and thereby provides perverse incentives to fall into these conditions-- the essence of the perversity thesis.)

"Futility" implies that proposals for social change are incapable of effecting change of any kind, because the social order is determined in advance by fundamental sociological and economic laws.  Hirschman has in mind here Pareto and Mosca's critiques of democracy in the early twentieth century, which held that political power could never be broadly shared in a society, because a given elite or property-owning class will always find ways to manipulate the existing political institutions in its own favor, whether those institutions be openly oligarchic or nominally democratic.

Hirschman sees many of the then-emerging shibboleths of the Chicago School of Economics, "public choice" theory, etc. as iterations of this same "futility" thesis.  In particular, he has in mind the claim made by George Stigler and others that money spent on welfare programs, however seemingly tied to policy goals aimed at alleviating poverty, will invariably be redirected to the middle class-- for the simple reason that the middle class is the largest voting bloc in a  democratic polity, by definition, and people are self-serving in their political choices just as they are in their economic lives.

There are some tricky bits with this one.  If the "futility thesis" is not coupled with some aspect of the "perversity" thesis, after all, it cannot tell us much about what we should and shouldn't do.  If all political choices will bring about precisely the same result because of ineluctable social laws, then it's hard to condemn any one particular set of them.  When I was canvassing for Amnesty International, I would sometimes encounter a certain species of middle-aged suburban male who--confronted with a petition to release a political prisoner in Iran, for example-- would state that it was "a nice idea," but "it couldn't possible make a difference."  Were I a more aggressive type, I would have countered that if signing it and not signing it were equally futile acts, why choose not to sign it?  Meanwhile, joining "futility" to "perversity" poses even more severe difficulties, to be discussed below.

How about "jeopardy"?  This is the catch-all for those arguments which do not accuse progressive social policies of being unable to achieve their intended results, but accuse those results themselves of being undesirable because they will endanger other social values, liberties, etc.

Interestingly, Hirschman does not use any examples of what I would take to be the obvious candidates for inclusion in the "jeopardy" category-- i.e. the whole galaxy of conservative arguments which maintain that liberal values are themselves fundamentally misguided from the ground up.  This is a rather stunning omission from his triptych of reactionary arguments.  However, Hirschman is primarily concerned not with Catholic traditionalists or Nietszchean or Sorelian elitists or others who have rejected the whole paradigm of liberal rights, but rather with the more prominent and influential voices of "reaction"-- most of whom have in fact drawn on the moral prestige enjoyed by basic liberal ideas in modern society.  What Hirschman has in mind as cases of the "jeopardy" hypothesis are, therefore, arguments made from within a broadly liberal framework-- that accept modern achievements of liberty and individual rights as in fact the very things which are endangered by social reformers who want to "have it all."  He places Victorian critics of universal suffrage in this camp as well as Hayek and other modern libertarians who regarded the Welfare State as a potential threat to earlier gains in the direction of liberty and democracy.

This sort of list-making is all good fun, but if it is to be something other than just "one damn thing after another," there needs to be some value-judgment placed on these arguments.  As Hirschman said in another context, at the end of making a similarly byzantine morphology of possible viewpoints: "So far I have essentially been, or pretended to be, a spectator and chronicler of that considerable portion of the Human Comedy which is involved with the production of ideologies. Faced with the highly diverse views here outlined I confess, however, to a moderate interest in the question as to which one is right." And for the main argument of the book to shed light on this question that really concerns us-- which view is right-- there needs to be some sort of connection between the fact of observed similarities among reactionary arguments and the ultimate merit of those arguments.  But what might that connection be?

Obviously, it is not a necessary connection.  The mere fact that an argument reappears over and over again is not necessarily a sign that it is incorrect.  A partisan of reaction might simply state that perversity, for instance, keeps cropping up in history because human nature is fundamentally perverse-- or else that perverse consequences are God's way of demonstrating to us our dependence and finitude.  Hirschman quotes De Maistre, e.g. to this effect (p. 18).  Similarly, "futility" might rear its head in such diverse situations because there really are unalterable laws of economic life (such as Pareto's universal income distribution) and of human nature (we are all the utility-maximizing agents of "methodological individualism," perhaps).

Hirschman acknowledges this, but suggests that the recurrence is "suspect" on particular grounds (166).  The first of these grounds is that these three theses, despite all being critiques of proposed social changes, and despite all being used interchangeably by the same groups-- and sometimes the same individuals-- actually conflict with one another in significant ways.  The example I alluded to above-- and in which Hirschman delights-- is the inconsistency of holding both the futility and perversity theses at once.  He gives the example of modern critiques of the Welfare State, which often seek to assert 1) that welfare spending distorts the behavior of the poor by offering perverse incentives to remain unemployed, to split from a second parent, etc. (see Charles Murray), and 2) "futility": any welfare spending will be redirected to the middle class and away from its "intended" beneficiaries (George Stigler).  Obviously, if welfare money is distorting the poor's behavior, that means they are getting it at some point down the line.  Conversely, if all welfare money is going to the middle class, it can't have much of an impact on the behavior of the poor.  Hirschman does not accuse any particular thinker of overlooking this inconsistency, but he implies-- and we can agree with him, I suspect-- that they are both mouthed uncritically by certain opponents of the Welfare State without regard for their mutual incompatibility.

The problem arises: if "perversity," "futility," and "jeopardy" are inconsistent with one another, but the right nonetheless moves seamlessly between them-- this implies that there is something motivating the right other than intellectual consistency.  If "reaction" keeps redrawing the battle lines-- if there is something fundamentally protean about its ideological character-- then what is the real thread running through it?  What could be more fundamental than those supposed "foundations" of all political philosophy-- conceptions of human nature, e.g.?  Yet these are the very things that change depending on whether one is making a "futility" argument, a "perversity" argument, etc.

The typical left-wing analysis-- let's call it the Corey Robin thesis-- offers a sociological explanation.  "Reactionaries" have no consistent ideology because they simply represent powerful and wealthy constituencies and will make any available argument so long as it supports their entrenched privileges.  The goal is to grow fat off the sweat of the poor and meanwhile blind the poor to the reality of their plight by the smokescreen of "ideology."

Leftists should beware, however, of weaving this sociological net for their critics lest they catch themselves in it.  I think you will find that leftists too make arguments that appeal to fundamentally different conceptions of human nature in different situations.  Every one of the "reactionary" arguments listed above, after all, has its left-wing counterpart.  Liberals are likely to sing the praises of human nature where the capacity to pass legislation that genuinely benefits the poor is concerned, but they express a worldweary skepticism as soon as Ron Paul, say, remarks that churches and local communities can be relied upon to keep the poor above starvation levels absent government provision of social services.  Another one I've mentioned before on this blog is the fact that leftists (myself included) routinely deride the pretensions of Neoconservatives in thinking they can intervene abroad without unconscionable bloodshed, yet they (me, that is) tend to be sanguine about the idea of elected governments undertaking public works projects and other large schemes for human improvement.

Perhaps for these reasons, Hirschman does not attempt to posit any conspiracy theory about the "true" motives of reaction.  Rather, his claim is that "the arguments have considerable intrinsic appeal because they hitch onto powerful myths (Hubris-Nemesis, Divine Providence, Oedipus)." (166).  It may sound like Hirschman is lopsidedly psychologizing his opponents without putting his liberal comrades on the same Jungian couch-- but this is not so.  Hirschman devotes the final portion of the book to making precisely parallel claims about progressive arguments, especially those that make an "intransigent" commitment to certain all-or-nothing propositions ("History is on our side,"(Marxism), for instance, or  "No good thing can possibly undermine another good thing-- they must be compatible," (the 'hedgehog' mentality famously identified by Isaiah Berlin).

Hirschman traces this all-or-nothing tendency to basic features of our minds-- especially the phenomenon of ideological "escalation."  We see this happen every day.  Here's how it works: an opponent of gay marriage, let's say, maintains that the family is a valuable human institution and that gay marriage will undermine it.  I happen to agree with the first proposition and vehemently reject the second one-- but the very fact that my opponent drew a connection between the two propositions has now subtly tainted them both in my mind.  If I go around talking about how great the family is now, I'll start to sound like one of them, I think.  And so it goes.  Hirschman showed how something like this took place between Burke and his critics over the question of the value of the inherited British constitution and its traditional liberties.  Because Burke invoked that tradition to condemn representative government in France, suddenly those to his left felt the need to disavow those traditions entirely-- even though it would have been a perfectly intelligible position to hold that certain British traditions were valuable, but they were not the only possible route to political liberty.

Hirschman's point is therefore not that reaction is uniquely incoherent and intellectually bankrupt.  His point is that all of us-- on the left and the right-- like to put our claims into a stronger form than is merited but the facts.  This is due in part to "escalation," but also to those stubborn "myths" mentioned above.  We have very deeply-rooted stories we tell about ourselves in order to make sense of our experience.  And every good story has a climax-- the bigger the better.  If we find that the Welfare State poses certain challenges to popular government, given the complexities of its administration-- we therefore naturally gravitate toward Hayekian doomsayers who declare the death of democracy at the hands of the Welfare State.  It gives us the end of the tragedy.  Similarly, we love those stories, a la Jurassic Park, in which the gods of chaos ultimately punish our human pretensions to omnipotence.  This motif of Hubris is deeply rooted in our cultural archetypes.  I suspect you could make a similar argument with regard to the role that eschatology still plays in the world-views of otherwise secular leftists.  The somewhat overwrought predictions that are made about global warming and other environmental catastrophes, for instance, draw on archetypes of divine wrath for human transgression.  Dystopian projections about a future of entirely automated labor and insensate human masses have mythic proportions of their own.

Hirschman's point in all of this is not that the ideology of right or left is dominated exclusively by these psychological archetypes-- but simply that we should press especially hard on those arguments that appeal to these archetypes.  We should treat them with particular skepticism, even though they may be true, because all of us will have reasons to endorse them in our own minds quite apart from their intrinsic truth value.  Hirschman is a liberal and a partisan of the modern Welfare State-- but his book is ultimately a plea for a modest and-- as much as humanly possible-- non-ideological intellectual stance.  He bids us to keep in mind that there is no necessary reason why our judgments in any given historical situation must be total.  There is no reason to suppose, for instance, that just because a particular policy had perverse outcomes or proved futile, therefore all such policies will prove perverse or futile.  So too, it may not be the case that all good values mutually reinforce one another-- but maybe they are not hopelessly irreconcilable with one another either.

What do I think of all this?  I find Hirschman's modest optimism a necessary corrective to our innate tendency to doomsaying.  However, it perhaps leaves him a little too sanguine about the nature of "market society" and its basic institutions.  As mentioned above, Hirschman does not grapple with any arguments which question the fundamental presuppositions of modern liberalism.  His so-called "reactionaries" all accept the values of individualism and the free market.  This means he leaves out some important episodes and players in the story of modern political ideology.

There is another way of reading his data, in fact, which would portray the real villains of the story-- the ones Hirschman describes as "reactionaries"-- as in reality pro-capitalist liberals.  They include Burke, the admirer of Adam Smith-- denounced by Karl Marx as a "vulgar bourgeois"; the Victorian opponents of the reform bills who feared the populace would threaten free enterprise and property rights once it got the right to vote; liberal economists like Pareto and Hayek; the list goes on.  Meanwhile the heroes, the so-called "progressives," might be recast as in actual fact a ragged coalition of conservatives, socialists, democrats, aristocrats, and other unlikely bedfellows trying in their various ways to tame the rutting beast of capitalism.  Hirschman mentions the fact, for instance-- but makes little of it in his overall thesis-- that in England it was the Tory Disraeli who championed the expanded suffrage and wrote scathing condemnations of industrial conditions, while his Liberal opponents were mostly concerned with defending free trade from the encroachments of protectionism.  I think this swapping of roles in Hirschman's story would be a misreading of history-- and that our commonsense notions of the origins of the modern "right" and "left" became commonsense for a reason-- but his version may be similarly lopsided in the opposite direction.

More significantly than this, we should remember that just because our worst nightmares have no necessary reason for coming true, there is no necessary reason why they won't.  Human beings have such a capacity for adaptation that apocalyptic prognoses will always sound mistaken in retrospect.  But it is quite possible to imagine an observer from Mars-- or a more functional Earth society-- who might well look on what has taken place in the U.S. in the last few decades as the fulfillment of an apocalyptic scenario.  If she found out that in the America of 2013, we have a severely damaged-to-non-existent safety net, that in any major urban area you can walk down the street and encounter people with paranoid schizophrenia muttering to themselves who are not cared for in any capacity by the state, that our economy was generating employment for little more than half of working-age adults, that our state had access to our personal electronic communications, that it was engaged in a war overseas which by definition had no final objective or end-point, that it was employing unmanned machine aircraft to bomb civilians in an already impoverished and violence-stricken part of the globe, that it had tortured people all over the world by flying them to secret prisons, that it kept other prisoners locked up overseas with no hope of a trial or eventual release, that our communities and families had been ripped apart by globalization, by shuttered factories, by unemployment and despair-- if the Martian saw all that, might she not think that her nightmares had come true?

In fact, if Hirschman-- that great partisan of moderation and decency in politics, of respect, of the achievements of the welfare state and democracy and human freedom-- if he were writing today instead of in 1991, might he not have been more tempered in his optimism?  Maybe, but then-- he already enjoined us to be temperate in such things.  Maybe it is we who didn't properly heed him.  After all: History is not on anyone's side, he urged.  History is something we make.


  1. This is a great post, not least because I've heard a lot of references to The Rhetoric of Reaction but have never seen the three rhetorical moves laid out systematically like this. As you might imagine, I have many thoughts, but one is that I'm not sure how distinctively conservative or right-wing the three moves are. I may not understand them properly since I haven't read the book, but it seems like their logic applies not just to social change understood in a left-wing or progressive way but to any sort of goal-directed policy or action and like they're in fact used by liberals to criticize conservative policy proposals. Here are three examples off the top of my head, and there are probably others too:

    (1) Abortion restrictions.

    Futility: Abortion restrictions won't actually reduce the number of abortions because women can travel to nearby jurisdictions, self-abort or procure illegal abortions, etc.

    Perversity: Abortion restrictions make abortion more harmful by forcing women to go to unregulated, unsafe providers.

    Jeopardy: Abortion restrictions might reduce the number of abortions but at a cost to reproductive autonomy, gender equality, etc.

    (2) School vouchers/charter schools.

    Futility: These policies won't actually improve educational outcomes because those outcomes are actually determined by poverty, family structure, etc.

    Perversity: Vouchers/charter schools will actually worsen educational outcomes for the poor students they aim to help by taking wealthier families with the political power to advocate for improvement out of the public school system.

    Jeopardy: Even if vouchers/charter schools improve test scores, etc., they'll do so at the expense of other values such as social solidarity.

    Paul Ryan's Medicare premium-support proposal

    Futility: Premium support won't actually lower health care costs because people can't comparison shop for health care effectively.

    Perversity: Premium support will actually raise health care costs because a government insurer can always deliver lower prices than private insurance companies due to its greater bargaining power.

    Jeopardy: Even if premium support does reduce health care costs, it will do so at the expense of other values, such as social solidarity.

  2. This is a very good point and some other examples could be adduced I'm sure. However, Hirschman is not saying that all appeals to perversity or futility are suspect. The move he is resisting in most of his case studies is the move from a particular instance to a totalizing general law about all social life-- for instance, De Maistre's claim that all human action is doomed to failure because of the designs of Providence, Pareto and Michels and Mosca's claims about the futile nature of democracy and income redistribution-- the claims made by public choice theorists and neoclassical economists about the inborn tendencies of human nature and political society. These total claims about all purposive social action are never advanced by the left, to my knowledge. The Left has its own canards which Hirschman also derides ("History is on our side," etc.)-- but they are distinct from these.