Albert Hirschman has many fans at the arbiter of all things serious, Crooked Timber. Tyler Cowen, in one of his fitful attempts to shore up his left-wing cred, praised Hirschman as deserving of the Nobel Prize in Economics and The Rhetoric of Reaction as “a brilliant study in intellectual self-deception.” Good enough! I ordered up my copy and prepared to be edified.

The Rhetoric of Reaction proposes a taxonomy, or really a nosology, of arguments frequently employed by reactionaries. It begins with T.H. Marshall’s Class, Citizenship, and Social Development and its convenient, if schematic, tripartite division of “the development of citizenship” in the West. According to Marshall, first there were civil rights (freedom of religion, speech, and thought); then political rights (universal suffrage); and finally economic rights (the welfare state). Marshall allots these three developments a century apiece — the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth, respectively. They are “progressive.” Whoever opposes any of them is “reactionary.”

If that’s all it takes, then count me in: I won’t defend universal suffrage, let alone the welfare state. I take solace in my distinguished and eclectic company. Hirschman’s reactionaries range from monarchists like Maistre and Burke to flaming socialists like Mosca and Pareto to welfare state critics like Friedman, Hayek, and Charles Murray, who get an especially raw deal. Friedman, who proposed a negative income tax, and Murray, with his similar grand scheme to replace the welfare state, cannot be fairly characterized as intransigently opposed to “reform.” Violence is being committed on the terms “reactionary” and “reformer.”

But to make a neat taxonomy you have to break a few eggs, and Hirschman’s is very neat indeed. We reactionaries, Hirschman says, argue against a proposed “reform” in three ways. The policy will do the opposite of what was intended (perversity). The policy will do nothing at all (futility). The policy will do other damage unrelated to its ends (jeopardy).

Hirschman’s categories are also more fluid than he acknowledges; the identical argument must be reclassified depending on how the reformer defines his ends. Take gun control. An opponent — the “reactionary” — might, and probably will, argue that it will prevent homeowners from defending themselves. This will reduce the risk to criminals, and thus crime will increase. If the advocate — the “reformer” — defines his end as reducing crime, we have a perversity argument. If he defines his end as reducing household gun accidents, we have a jeopardy argument. Hell, if the reformer defines his end as protecting innocent homeowners, and the additional homeowners who are shot by robbers cancel the ones who no longer shoot themselves, we might even have a futility argument. But it’s the same argument.

Still, Hirschman is on to something here. Jeopardy, futility, and perversity are all variations on unintended consequences, a traditionally rich field for ironists, and his thesis goes a long way toward explaining why “progressives” are so excruciatingly sincere:

There has been a certain lack of balance in the recurring debates between progressives and conservatives: in the effective use of the potent weapon of irony, conservatives have had a clear edge over progressives. In [Tocqueville's] hands [the French Revolution] begins to look naive and absurd, rather than infamous and sacrilegious — the predominant characterization conveyed by earlier critics such as Maistre and Bonald. This aspect of the conservatives’ attitude toward their opponents was also reflected by the German term Weltverbesserer (world improver), which evokes someone who has taken on far too much and is bound to end up as a ridiculous failure…. In general, a skeptical, mocking attitude toward progressives’ endeavors and likely achievements is an integral and highly effective component of the modern conservative stance.

I once read a news item about an oil-slick cleanup, it might have been the Exxon Valdez spill, I can’t remember. Countless mammals and birds are scrubbed; vast trouble is taken. Finally all is ready: the cosmetologists gather on the beach, and a freshly shampooed otter is ceremoniously released into the sea. It swims to the crest of the first wave, where it is promptly eaten by a killer whale. If you laugh, you are a reactionary.

Of course it is funny. But so what? Maybe the otter ran into extremely bad luck. Maybe so many animals were rescued, and so efficiently, that a few meals for Shamu made no difference. Perhaps what really makes a reactionary is that he finds this story not only funny, but a dispositive argument against oil-slick cleanups. I owe this thought to Hirschman, and it is enough to make me glad to have read the book. “Reactionaries” pride themselves on deep thinking and “hard-headed realism” the same way “progressives” pride themselves on moral superiority, and often with no more justification. Not all reforms fail, and not all unintended consequences are bad. It is salutary to be reminded to cast out the beam from your own eye before beholding the mote in your adversary’s.

But Hirschman has broader aims:

There has indeed been a more basic intent: to establish some presumption, through the demonstration of repetition in basic argument, that the standard “reactionary” reasoning, as here exhibited, is frequently faulty….

A general suspicion of overuse of the arguments is aroused by the demonstration that they are invoked time and again almost routinely to cover a wide variety of real situations. The suspicion is heightened when it can be shown, as I have attempted to do in the preceding pages, that the arguments have considerable intrinsic appeal because they hitch onto powerful myths (Hubris-Nemesis, Divine Providence, Oedipus) and influential interpretive formulas (ceci tuera cela, zero-sum) or because they cast a flattering light on their authors and provide a boost for their egos. In view of these extraneous attractions, it becomes likely that the standard reactionary these will often be embraced regardless of their fit.

Hirschman does not establish, beyond noting the similarity in the stories, that the perversity and futility theses “hitch onto” Oedipus and Hubris-Nemesis. And even if they do, where did the myths themselves originate? Isn’t it likely that both Oedipus and the argument from perversity, both Hubris-Nemesis and the argument from futility, originate in observed facts about events?

And his taxonomy is too comprehensive to sustain the charge of overuse. Throw out perversity, futility, and jeopardy, and what’s left? A reform’s ends are always noble, in the eyes of the reformers. Would Hirschman prefer that reactionaries argue against liberty, democracy, a minimal living for the poor, or clean air? When Charles Fourier tells us that socialism will raise the human average to the level of a Goethe or an Aristotle, should we reply that we prefer the human average as it is? Hirschman professes disappointment in the reactionaries: “Instead of the rich historical argumentation to which I was looking forward, the purveyors of the jeopardy claim, from Robert Lowe to Samuel Huntington, have often satisfied with simple affirmations of the ceci-tuera-cela [this will kill that] type.” The arguments in which, by implication, he thinks reactionaries ought to engage would really let him down.

Hirschman is much given to ironizing about the reactionary propensity to ironize. He surely appreciates the irony that his likely audience, “progressives,” will find nothing but confirmation for its beliefs. Few “reactionaries,” who could profit from the book, will ever read it.

Post scripta: It does not bear directly on Hirschman’s thesis, but the casual dishonesty of some of the footnotes is shocking in a scholar of his reputation. He writes of Gustave Le Bon, the author of The Crowd: “His basic principle being that the crowd is always benighted, he makes it apply with remarkable consistency, regardless of the constituents of the crowd and of their characteristics as individuals: ‘the vote of 40 academicians is no better than that of 40 water carriers’ he wrote, thereby managing to insult in passing the French academy with its forty members, an elite body from which he resentfully felt himself excluded.”

There is a footnote after “excluded,” which simply refers to the passage from The Crowd that he quotes, supplying no evidence for Le Bon’s alleged resentment. Hirschman must know that the note belongs directly after the quoted passage. By placing it where he does he bolsters, with an irrelevant citation, an unsupported slur.

Here is Hirschman later in the same chapter, on the 1834 Poor Law Amendment: “…the new arrangements were meant to deter the poor from resorting to public assistance and to stigmatize those who did by ‘imprisoning [them] in workhouses, compelling them to wear special garb, separating them from their families, cutting them off from communication with the poor outside, and, when they died, permitting their bodies to be disposed of for dissection.’”

Hirschman intends the reader to take the quotation at face value, as a factual description of the effect of the Amendment. But the footnote, at the end of the passage, is to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s classic The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. The note says, accurately, that Himmelfarb is summarizing William Cobbett. The note does not say that Cobbett was one of the most vigorous contemporary opponents of the Amendment; neither does it say that Himmelfarb spends her next five pages qualifying and disputing him. The very page Hirschman quotes has a note of its own: “Cobbett was especially outraged by the practice of dissection, which he took to be the ultimate degradation and desecration caused by the New Poor Law. This was not, of course, part of the law, and it is not clear how common it was for workhouses to dispose of bodies for this purpose. But it was widely believed to be the case, partly because of Cobbett’s repeated charges to this effect.”

I hope Hirschman footnotes his works in economics, the ones that merit the Nobel Prize, more correctly.

Aaron Haspel | Posted December 23, 2006 @ 2:45 PM | Philosophy

3 Responses to “Jeopardy, Perversity, Futility”

  1. 1 1. Matt McIntosh

    Great take, Aaron. Hirschman is up there with Sam Huntington on the list of famous political scientists who are granted reverence in excess of what their work merits. I find further irony that there is nothing in Exit, Voice and Loyalty and The Passions and the Interests that is both true and that the great reactionary Friedrich Hayek wouldn’t have agreed with.


  2. 2 2. thomaswhigham

    could you explain reactionary again in terms of a contemporary political issue and in regards to hirschman’s division, ie, how he sees the issue being demarcated and on which sides he would place the label, as well as what specifically makes that label apply, in his opinion and, more importantly, in your own?

    In fact, screw hirschman for a second, let’s get your take on that so that I can take exception to hirschman and yourself as needed :p


  3. 3 3. Alrenous

    “his thesis goes a long way toward explaining why “progressives” are so excruciatingly sincere:”

    “the casual dishonesty of some of the footnotes is shocking”

    Bit of an interesting conjunction, yes?
    But I have a real question, too. Is Hirschman lying on purpose or does he just not care enough to find what’s actually true?

    And because I like being pedantic…
    A policy can work or not work, and have fatal side-effects or not. This is a two-bit system. The policy is productive (noble) only in the 10 case, and the three arguments neatly cover 11, 00, and 01. Jeopardy, futility, perversity. These argument cannot be overused; throwing them out means never, ever objecting to a policy.


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