A friend recently pointed me toward Albert Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. As I read it, I wondered, once again, "How many economic arguments are simply the stuff of reactionary rhetoric?" Too many, I fear.
In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschman gives us three theses to ponder:
- The Perversity Thesis: reform efforts will backfire, tending toward effects opposite those desired
- The Futility Thesis: reform efforts are doomed to fail from the get-go
- The Jeopardy Thesis: reform efforts will unravel earlier (better) reforms, or they will unravel the entirety of whatever system is in play
Although written in 1991, The Rhetoric of Reaction give us a good glimpse of too much of public "speak" today:
… In general, a skeptical mocking attitude toward progressives' endeavors and likely achievements is an integral part and highly effective component of the modern conservative stance.Hirschman explains how easily both conservatives and progressives get drawn into the rhetorical standoffs, impasses really: "… To the dangers of action it is always possible to oppose the dangers of inaction. …" Here is how Hirschman frames a hypothetical point/counterpoint:
In contrast, progressives have remained mired in earnestness. Most of them have been long on moral indignation and short on irony. …
Reactionary: The contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.Hirschman concludes with:
Progressive: Not to take the contemplated action will ring disastrous consequences.
Reactionary: The new reform will jeopardize the older one.
Progressive: The new and the old reforms will mutually reinforce each others.
Reactionary: The contemplated action attempts to change permanent structural characteristics ([natural]"laws") of the social order; it is therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile.
Progressive; The contemplated action is backed up by powerful historical forces that are already "on the march"; opposing them would be utterly futile.
… [M]y purpose is not to cast "a plague on both your houses." Rather, it is to move public discourse beyond extreme, intransigent postures of either kind, with the hope that in the process our debates will become more "democratically friendly." …One question lingers with me: How far have we, particularly here in the US, backpedaled in our quest for pluralistic reasoning?
Recent reflection on democracy have yielded two valuable insights …. Modern pluralistic regimes have typically come into being not because of some preexisting wide consensus on "basic values," bur rather because various groups that had been at each others' throats for a prolonged period had to recognize their mutual inability to achieve dominance. Tolerance and acceptance of pluralism resulted eventually from a standoff between bitterly hostile opposing groups.
This historical point of departure of democracy does not bode particularly well for the stability of these regimes. The point is immediately obvious, but it becomes even more so when it is brought into contact with the theoretical claim that a democratic regime achieves legitimacy to the extent that its decisions result from full and open deliberation among its principal groups, bodies, and representatives. Deliberation is here conceived, as an opinion-forming process: the participants should not have fully or definitively formed opinions at the outset; they are expected to engage in meaningful discussion, which means that they should be ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of arguments of other participants and also as a result of new information which becomes available in the course of the debate. …
If this is what it takes for the democratic process to become self-sustaining and to acquire long-run stability and legitimacy, then the gulf that separates such a state from democratic-pluralistic regimes as they emerge historically from strife and civil war is uncomfortably and perilously wide. A people that only yesterday was engaged in fratricidal struggles is not likely to settle down overnight to those constructive give-and-take deliberations. Far more likely , there will initially be agreement to disagree, but without any attempt at melding the opposing points of view—that is indeed the nature of religious tolerance. Or, if there is discussion, it will be a typical "dialogue of the deaf"—a dialogue that will in fact long function as a prolongation of, and a substitute for, civil war. Even in the most "advanced" democracies, many debates are, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a "continuation of civil war with other means." Such debates, with each part on the lookout for arguments that kill, are only too familiar from democratic politics as usual.
There remains then a long and difficult road to be traveled from the traditional internecine, intransigent discourse to a more "democracy-friendly" kind of dialogue. …
When "values" of various stripes are trotted out before us on a daily basis, asking us to pledge allegiance to 'values' framed as 'moral absolutes' in-ever-more-strident urgings, why are we not in the streets screaming, Stop! We are losing the very platform on which democracy can flourish!
Or maybe I'm just being reactionary?
UPDATE: Why Do Economists Disagree?, Dani Rodrik, 8/5/7, interrelates well with Hirschman's view. Here is a Keynes quote from the post:
The completeness of the Ricardian victory is something of a curiosity and a mystery. It must have been due to a complex of suitabilities in the doctrine to the environment into which it was projected. That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect, added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and consistent logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority. [JM Keynes, The General Theory]Rodrik notes: "As usual, Keynes puts it best"