The rhetoric of reaction

by Chris Bertram on September 25, 2003

I was thinking over some of the responses to my discussion of “sufficientarianism” below, and noticing how common is a certain type of right-wing response to facts about the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our societies. To whit:

It isn’t true.

or

It may be true, but it doesn’t matter.

or

It’s true, and it matters, but doing something about it would (a) have the perverse effect of making that thing worse, or (b) make something else worse. etc etc.

The same, of course, for global warming or any number of other issues. That these responses are difficult to hold consistently, doesn’t always prevent their proponents from either advancing them simultaneously or switching promiscuously among them. All of which put me in mind of Albert Hirschman’s marvellous essay The Rhetoric of Reaction (pdf), which appears as one of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values (and in a later version as a book ).

Hirschman identifies three reactionary theses:

The perversity thesis : the proposed action or reform “will produce, via a series of unintended consequences, the exact contrary of the objective that is being pursued.”
The futility thesis : “the attempt at change is abortive, that in one way or another any change is or was largely surface, facade, cosmetic, hence illusory, as the ‘deep’ structures of society remain wholly untouched.”

and

The jeopardy thesis : “a new reform, if carried out, would mortally endanger an older, highly prized one that has only recently been put into place.”

Read the whole thing (as a certain reactionary blogger might say), it is a wonderful journey through the invariance of conservative responses to reform from Burke to Murray.

{ 37 comments }

1

dsquared 09.25.03 at 10:43 am

I would just like to point out that:

a) the left is just as guilty as this sort of rhetoric as the right.

and furthermore

b) the left is *more* guilty of this sort of rhetoric than the right

and indeed furthermore

c) the right doesn’t use this sort of rhetoric at all.

but most importantly

d) the right is entirely justified in using this sort of rhetoric

and indeed

e) it isn’t rhetoric at all; it’s completely true.

2

Shai 09.25.03 at 10:47 am

I will read the whole thing, but I’d be careful about applying the lesson. Thinking you have the proponents of the other side of an argument figured out doesn’t necessarily imply that you shouldn’t take their claims seriously. Otherwise you might find yourself guilty of a similar species of oversimplification.

3

Peter Briffa 09.25.03 at 11:44 am

Chris,

Suppose Tony Blair were to at next week’s party conference announce that the Monarchy was being abolished and that he was going to hand over Buckingham Palace to a family of gypsies on the grounds that the Queen had plenty of stuff, and this particular family of gypsies had very little.
This could be objected, and not just by right-wing psychos, on all three grounds.

1. It isn’t true that the gypsies haven’t got a sufficiency. They’ve got plenty, actually. I mean, compare them to all those people living in the Sudan.

2. Okay, maybe it is true that they haven’t got a sufficiency – I’ve seen the statistics, and relative to the Queen, they have got it bad. But so what? No one forced them to live in a caravan, did they? It’s their lives.

3. It is true that the gypsies are suffering. I too have seen the statistics, and yeah, my heart goes out to them. However, taking away the Queen’s property and giving it them will only make matters worse for them ( they’ll take even more heroin than before, say ), and for others. What about those who are more deserving than the gypsies? Why don’t they deserve some of the Queen’s stash?

All true ( possibly, anyway ), none inconsistent. So what have I shown? That your definition of true switches from example to example, that’s all.

Moreover, it’s hardly the case that the left are all united about what to do about the poor, the disenfranchised, and the gypsies. What are all those think-tanks for? How to help the poor, while not making them dependent on that help, in the long-term, has been the longest-running debate among the left since I was in short trousers.

4

Chris 09.25.03 at 11:51 am

Peter, I was under the impression that Buckingham Palace has been in the possession of a family of gypsies for many years. Am I mistaken?

5

dsquared 09.25.03 at 12:02 pm

Peter: give over. Chris isn’t at any point claiming that this is a necessarily invalid argument schema, or that it can’t be used to support reasonable conclusions. He’s simply pointing out that arguments of this kind have a history, and that history is that they have been used in bad faith.

6

jdsm 09.25.03 at 12:11 pm

Surely the point was not that none of the viewpoints of conservatives are correct, merely that there is a fairly well entrenched set of responses conservatives employ to justify their conservatism. Rather than trying to make the world a “better place”, they simply fall back on why any potential improvement either fixes a non-existent problem, makes the problem worse or doesn’t matter.

I’m sure a similar analysis could be made of arguments used on the left to support some of their more idiotic policies from their half-witted elements. As an analysis of a horribly large number of conservatives, however, this is spot on.

7

Ayjay 09.25.03 at 2:25 pm

Okay, let’s try out Hirschman’s rhetorical analysis on an issue of some currency:

The perversity thesis: Invading Iraq will not only fail to prevent future terrorist threats, it will actually exacerbate them by providing a wide range of angry people in the Islamic world a target for their anger.

The futility thesis: Irag will become a quagmire, just as Vietnam was. We’ll be bogged down in it forever and never make any significant progress in transforming Iraqi society into a functioning democracy.

The jeopardy thesis: Okay, maybe we had to invade Afghanistan — but invading Iraq now will, by agitating resistance and focusing the minds of Islamic radicals (see the Preversity Thesis above), put all our good work in Afghanistan in mortal jeopardy.

Gee, this all sounds rather familiar. And these were arguments put forth against the invasion by people on the left AND the right. Which suggests that what we are talking about here is not a pathology of the conservative movement, but rather the form that arguments against ANY particular form of action tend to assume. And since all governments — whether liberal, conservative, radical, or fascist — make and implement policies, dissent from those policies will likely take one of the three forms identified by Hirschman. These categories don’t at all make the case that Chris wants them to make.

8

Nicholas Weininger 09.25.03 at 2:51 pm

Do you have any actual examples of these arguments being used by the same person regarding the same issue? Certainly I’ve seen plenty of people make argument (1) regarding some allegations about the plight of poor people, and argument (2) regarding others, and argument (3) regarding still others. And there are issues on which some commentators will make (1), others (2), and still others (3).

But neither of these, it seems to me, implies inconsistency or bad faith on the part of any actual right-wing commentator. The problems of poverty, after all, are not monolithic, and neither is conservative thought.

9

Thorley Winston 09.25.03 at 3:17 pm

Chris Bertram wrote:

It isn’t true.

Then prove that it is true.

It may be true, but it doesn’t matter.

Then prove that it is true and matters.

It’s true, and it matters, but doing something about it would (a) have the perverse effect of making that thing worse, or (b) make something else worse. etc etc.

Then prove that it is true, it matters, and your proposed solution would not have the perverse effect of making it or something else worse.

Simply saying that you are proposing a “reform” and accusing your opponents of being “reactionaries” (which is one of the most disingenuous forms of smears in the public policy arena) is not a substantive counter-argument. Like it or not, the days in which you could simply say “we’re progressives and anyone who disagrees with us or our proposals is a reactionary” and hope to win an argument are over. Aside of course people who share your biases and echo your beliefs.

At a minimum you ought to have to provide a convincing argument to each of those three objections. If you cannot then, people who object to the potential loss of life, liberty, and property which so often result from the policies of the self-proclaimed “progressives” are entirely justified in their skepticism, regardless of whether or not you find it inconvenient that people have the temerity to disagree with you.

10

Nabakov 09.25.03 at 3:31 pm

Hmm…an arguement about the nature and structure of an argument.

…I’ll go make some popcorn and get comfortable. This should be fun.

11

Russell L. Carter 09.25.03 at 3:46 pm

ajay has just elegently demonstrated why the Iraq intervention had nothing whatsoever to do with Conservatism. And inadvertently proved the thesis.

12

Nabakov 09.25.03 at 4:02 pm

You mean ajay’s posting was for real? I really thought it was another example of the quality irony (y’know like “goldy and “coppery”) that I was hoping to enjoy being displayed in this thread.

And Thorley, mate…

“regardless of whether or not you find it inconvenient that people have the temerity to disagree with you.”

…back at you babe.

13

Russell L. Carter 09.25.03 at 4:23 pm

Sorry Nabokov, my bad. What I really meant to say is that ajay is in fact guilty of playing up the bad news and suppressing much of the good. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. That’s because the Right rarely stoops to tactics of this sort, but the Left does it all the time because they’re always wrong.

14

dsquared 09.25.03 at 4:43 pm

Simply saying that you are proposing a “reform” and accusing your opponents of being “reactionaries” (which is one of the most disingenuous forms of smears in the public policy arena) is not a substantive counter-argument.

Chris is talking about styles of *rhetoric*, not arguments. He even helpfully placed the word “rhetoric” in the title of the post (it’s between “The” and “of” if you want to check) in order to make himself clear. If you’re interested in talking about rhetoric, let’s hear what you’ve got to say. If you just want to make crashingly obvious points about _ad hominem_ arguments, then why don’t you search google for a “List of Fallacies”, and then do feel free to not post the link here.

15

Thorley Winston 09.25.03 at 6:13 pm

Daniel Davies wrote:

Chris is talking about styles of rhetoric, not arguments.

Actually it’s pretty clear from the bulk of his post that he’s doing a bit of both. Affixing the label of “reactionary” to those who oppose your proposals or POV is pretty much an ad homenem attack much like throwing around the invective of “extremist” or “unpatriotic.” It’s a cheap rhetorical device made in lieu of an actual argument and he does it several times throughout his original post.

As is this whole of argument about the “rhetoric of reaction.” Rather than address the three rather basic objections which anyone proposing any “reform” ought to expect to have to overcome, Chris merely dismisses them as “difficult to hold consistently” while accusing those who raise them of “either advancing them simultaneously or switching promiscuously among them” which is a rather disingenuous objection since (a) none of the objections contradict each other and (b) each is capable of standing on their own or supporting the other in which case it is perfectly valid to argue them separately or jointly.

16

Thorley Winston 09.25.03 at 6:24 pm

Chris wrote:

The same, of course, for global warming or any number of other issues. That these responses are difficult to hold consistently, doesn’t always prevent their proponents from either advancing them simultaneously or switching promiscuously among them.

Okay let’s take global warming as an example (without arguing the merits but rather the types of objections a detractor might raise). Suppose that one does not support a proposed “reform” for global warming and offers the following three objections:

a) There is insufficient evidence to show that the Earth’s temperature is increasing at an unnatural rate due to human-created emissions of “green house gases.”
b) There is insufficient evidence to show that global warming even if it were occurring would be an important problem.
c) The proposed “reforms” such as increased taxes and energy prices would have unintended consequences such as a lower standard of living and increased poverty which would make things worse.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with any or each of the previous objections, how would it be difficult to hold each of them consistently? Can anyone also not see (even if you disagree with each or any of the objections) why none of the arguments contradict each other and can therefore be argued “simultaneously” or individually without detracting from each other?

17

Chris 09.25.03 at 6:31 pm

I had thought of advising D^2 not to feed the troll. But TW isn’t really a troll (or a kook for that matter) but a sort of thin skinned anal retentive who posts endless humourlessly argumentative posts – and I don’t have a neat word for that sort of person.

The main point of the post was to persuade people, in a fairly light-hearted and conversational kind of way to read Hirschman’s rather excellent essay. I hadn’t understood myself to be doing anything so hifalutin as advancing an argument, and I’m going to resist all demands for further evidence, scholarly apparatus, supporting statistics, etc etc. If you enjoy Hirschman’s essay fine, if not …. no, I’m not going to get less polite than this.

18

dsquared 09.25.03 at 6:34 pm

Actually it’s pretty clear from the bulk of his post that he’s doing a bit of both. Affixing the label of “reactionary” to those who oppose your proposals or POV is pretty much an ad homenem attack much like throwing around the invective of “extremist” or “unpatriotic.”

My arse it is. It’s a perfectly accurate description of reactionaries, just as “racist” is a perfectly accurate description of racists or “communist” of communists.

Your remaining remarks about consistency imply very strongly that you still haven’t grasped the difference between logic and rhetoric, and frankly I’m beginning to think you’re doing it on purpose.

19

dsquared 09.25.03 at 6:56 pm

and I don’t have a neat word for that sort of person.

I do but out of respect I’m not going to use it. Hint taken.

20

Chun the Unavoidable 09.25.03 at 7:09 pm

I had thought of advising D^2 not to feed the troll.

Those of us who remember D^2′s efforts at certain tech-oriented web sites can’t help but find this amusing.

21

Russell L. Carter 09.25.03 at 7:36 pm

Getting back to the paper… I think there is at least one other device employed that could be added as a peer to the list:

Individuals who are [poor|unhealthy|hungry|...], are so because of personal failings: it is immoral to compel others to assist.

This argument showed up in a comment recently on Daniel Dresners blog:

“>65% of Americans are obese, >30% morbidly so, and the top six causes of death in the US are elective diseases.

As a higher income earner, I am highly opposed to anyone confiscating my income to defray the natural expenses of anyone’s lack of lifestyle control.”

It shows up a lot in the debate on what an appropriate structure for health insurance should be, often couched in libertarian terms as allowing self selecting pools to define the collective benefits they wish to pay for.

Great article BTW. Curious and not encouraging that the English Poor Laws had such a history.

22

Sigivald 09.25.03 at 8:22 pm

D^2: Well, if “reactionary” is a merely descriptive term without loading, pray tell me what it actually means?

Assuming, that is, that “reactionary” has a meaning other than “opposed to self-labeled ‘progressive’ policies”? (Which is, in my experience, how the term is most often actually used, but I suppose an appeal to usage is not likely to be effective here.)

More specifically, can you provide a definition of “reactionary” (and by implication “conservative”) such that you can, in practice, differentiate “reactionary” and “conservative”? If not, I submit the term is being abused, perhaps in the above manner. If so (and I certainly hope so), well, that would certainly clear the waters, wouldn’t it?

(As an aside, I’ve noticed, when asking people who themselves use the term, for themselves or their ideas, to define “progressive”, that they can rarely manage to do so in an even vaguely coherent manner. I’m not sure that this is a problem with “progressive” as a term more than with the particular people in question, however. It is a reason I tend to avoid the term except in quotes, or when dealing with people who themselves use the term, for themselves.)

23

Janes_Kid 09.25.03 at 9:11 pm

When I use the settings >view>text size>largest, your article is almost unreadable.

24

ekim 09.25.03 at 9:34 pm

reactionary: relating to, marked by, or favoring reaction; especially : ultraconservative in politics

reaction: 1 a : the act or process or an instance of reacting b : resistance or opposition to a force, influence, or movement; especially : tendency toward a former and usually outmoded political or social order or policy

The difference between “reactionary” and “conservative” seems to be one of degree, per the definition, hence it is possible to deferentiate the two.

25

UncleBob 09.25.03 at 10:56 pm

In this part of the country (South-ish Texas) the responses commonly include something like:

“It may be true, but they’re all in this country illegally anyway” so a. it doesn’t matter or b. they should be happy to go back and die of starvation in whatever Central American hell-hole they came from.

26

Zizka 09.26.03 at 12:12 am

Nabakov, have a beer too.

I think that this is a general principle of polemic argumentation: “Any stick is good enough to beat this dog with” is a classic summation — from Dr. Johnson, I think.

D2 ran through the automatic response pretty fluently. Later attempts fell somewhat short.

While in theory it is possible that both sides sin equally in this regard, I think that (speaking as an American) the right wing is in fact much more often culpable. The reason for this is that the American right wing are shits.

If you disagree, do you think that shits are not, in fact, more likely to use arguments of this kind? Or are you claiming that American rightwingers are not shits? Or perhaps that, while American rightwingers are shits, they’re not the **kind** of shits who use this particular type of argument, but rather prefer other kinds of shitty arguments such as death threats and accusations of communist al-Qaeda sympathies?

Let’s discuss this reasonably without changing the subject or using harsh rhetoric.

27

Zizka 09.26.03 at 12:20 am

To continue in a civil, gentlemanly, rational fashion, most of you have apparently not had a lot of contact with American core conservatives whose response to poverty is “It’s their own goddamn fault. Hope they starve slowly and painfully”.

The theoretical justification here is “If various sorts of unproductive and improvident individuals die miserably, not only will the gene pool be cleaned out, but marginal workers will be motivated to work a bit harder and to be more respectful of authority”. The word for this ca. 1920 was “labor discipline”.

28

Pierre Menard 09.26.03 at 1:07 am

I thought the dismissal of Thorley Winston’s views was pretty unwarranted — not to mention
uncivil. Yes, I know, all Chris wanted to do was write something lighthearted so that people would read
Hirschman’s essay; yes, the types of arguments mentioned have a history of being used in bad faith.

But in his post Chris did IMPLY that anyone who advances statements which fit this template
is being illogical. I’m glad that Peter Briffa and Thorley Winston made posts showing that this is not true.

29

Zizka 09.26.03 at 4:30 am

I actually forgot: perhaps rightwingers are shits and they also frequently use this particular form of rhetoric, but they don’t use this rhetoric **because** they are shits.

30

Tom T. 09.26.03 at 5:55 am

Certainly, there are contentious issues of public policy as to which the political left now holds the status quo and the right is urging changes (Roe v. Wade; public schools vs. vouchers). One can readily develop an argument that it is the left that is being “reactionary” on these issues, since they are resisting the changes put forth by the right. It would also be a relatively simple exercise too find examples of Hirschman’s “reactionary theses” coming from the left with regard to these issues. I suspect that those on the left would resist the label of “reactionary”, however, because it has generally been applied with a normative content that is pejorative.

The original comment from dsquared that this sort of argument can be found on both sides of the political spectrum holds great truth for me. I just don’t see very much difference in the general breakdown of the two sides: Both sides have some zealots, a few opportunists, and a lot of people who honestly believe that their views and values can improve the polity and the lives of people in general.

31

dsquared 09.26.03 at 7:12 am

A conservative opposes the current reform; a reactionary wants to undo the last one.

32

Nabakov 09.26.03 at 8:12 am

I was just about to say the same thing, DD, really I was.

“contentious issues of public policy as to which the political left now holds the status quo and the right is urging changes (Roe v. Wade; public schools vs. vouchers)”
is all about trying to return to the original status quo that existed before the said public policies came into effect.

And because progressives propose change and reactionaries oppose it, you are more likely to find the “not a problem/not a big problem/solution will do more harm than good” line of arguement on the reactionary side.

And thanks for the beer, Z.

33

Micha Ghertner 09.26.03 at 2:01 pm

A conservative opposes the current reform; a reactionary wants to undo the last one.

I guess that makes reactionaries out of all the lefties who wish to undo Bush’s tax cuts, huh?

It amuses me to no end watching you guys squirm while trying to make these arbitrary definitions fit with reality. I am reminded of a certain comment made by Randy Barnett some time ago, in which he lumped the entire left together for living in its own “constructed reality”. Barnett, however, had the good sense to revise and partially retract his observation when readers pointed out how silly it was.

I wait with baited breath for Henry, Brian and Kieren to make the same criticism of Chris that they made of Randy.

34

Nababov 09.26.03 at 2:41 pm

I’m feeling fisky, so…

“I guess that makes reactionaries out of all the lefties who wish to undo Bush’s tax cuts, huh?”

Telling someone not to piss on an electic fence is above politcial attitudes and platitudes. Anyone with a basic grasp of economics, left or right, can understand how Micawber’s Law is a real zero-sum game.

“It amuses me to no end watching you guys squirm while trying to make these arbitrary definitions fit with reality.”

Now what does this remind me of? “Iraq is a danger to us ‘cos it has WMDs?”, “US steel tariffs will make products cheaper?” “US tax cuts are creating jobs and improving quality of life? “I am a uniter, not a divider”?

“…certain comment made by Randy Barnett some time ago, in which he lumped the entire left together for living in its own “constructed reality”. Barnett, however, had the good sense to revise and partially retract his observation when readers pointed out how silly it was.”

Yer point here being?

“I wait with baited breath for Henry, Brian and Kieren to make the same criticism of Chris that they made of Randy.”

Let the hairpulling begin. Tell yer what, step outside, and they’re not there within 10 minutes, you start by yourself.

35

Nabakov 09.26.03 at 2:46 pm

I meant “electric fence” dammit! My speelings always been ecletic.

36

baa 09.26.03 at 2:58 pm

I am of course, late to the party and run the risk of being last comment in the box (micha, I’ve saved you!), but I do note that poor Thorley got an unjust reception here.

Surely everyone would agree that the “rhetoric of reaction” as detailed by Chris just consist of generic “anti” arguments (as someone noted above). They aren’t mutually exclusive, they aren’t wrong, and they aren’t exclusively the property of the right.

The grain of truth is that ‘unintended consequences’ (and public choice) arguments were staples of neoconservative policy analysis in the 70s and 80s, and thus could be cosidered to have a right-wing pedigree. But that should be merit praise and thanks! Unintended consequences are important, and now both left and right think about them. So we all owe Irving Kristol for leading the charge. Send flowers and candy c/o the doorman at the Watergate hotel.

The grain of sand, which, I suspect, irritates Chris’ right-leaning readers, is his suggestion that the american and european right as currently constituted uniquely opposes *change* in a way the left doesn’t. This, of course, is folly. I mean, really: the french left is dynamic and seeking change? The american right has no radical or revolutionary elements? No sale.

37

Andrew 09.27.03 at 11:27 am

I don’t like the name of reactionaries either. These (powerful people generally associated with the Republican Party) are moving toward a future that has never existed but which they want to create.

Therefore they are not conservative, but radicals. To distinguish them from the left, let’s call them radical complete bastards.

The primary identifier is the need to protect the rich and powerful from public scorn and their own moral qualms. And a highly moralised disregard for the weak.

Apart from that they’re just politicians.

Comments on this entry are closed.