Hirschman perversity bingo

by Henry on April 5, 2011

Mark Blyth has a “somewhat different approach”:http://triplecrisis.com/the-problem-of-intellectual-capture/ to the Greenspan op-ed of last week, which looks to be emerging as the fruit fly genome/Enron email corpus/Zachary’s karate club of theories about post-crisis bogus rationalization.

bq. Rather than deal with the crisis as it happened, or even address what it cost, Greenspan dealt with the crisis on a purely rhetorical level. I mean rhetorical in the sense that Albert Hirschman identified twenty years ago in his fabulous book The Rhetoric of Reaction. (Really, if you haven’t read it, read it now – it’s like a Dan Brown crypex for crisis-newspeak). Hirschman pointed out that conservative arguments come in three distinct theses. First is the “Perversity thesis” where any well meaning reform produces its opposite outcome: ‘welfare makes you poor’ – that sort of thing. The second is the “Jeopardy thesis” where reforms put at risk more than they can ever deliver–­ the fear of extending the suffrage is typical. Third is the “Futility thesis” where reforms are simply pointless – fill in any and all opposition to global warming. Greenspan begins with a few vignettes concerning Ford’s inability to get a credit rating on an ABS and how the banks will suffer if their ATM card fees are regulated, but he soon hits his stride. I gave him a “Hirschman Scorecard” of four perversities, three jeopardies, and two futilities in one column …These ranged from bemoaning how “consequences cannot be readily anticipated” (Jeopardy), to noting how prop-trading rules will force operations abroad (Futility), and hand waving about complexity regarding “undesirable repercussions that might happen” (Perversity).

The rest is also well worth reading, but quite depressing.

{ 28 comments }

1

Matt McIrvin 04.05.11 at 3:22 am

Actually with global warming I’ve seen all three in the wild. The best example of the perversity thesis claimed that limiting carbon dioxide emissions would cause the earth to shift off its axis (that it will cause a new Ice Age is a more popular one).

The jeopardy thesis is in operation with the claim that the necessary measures will so damage the world economy that they will cause civilizational collapse, or avert the technological singularity that will allow us to adapt to climate change.

2

digamma 04.05.11 at 3:42 am

I never got why Hirschman considered those inherently reactionary arguments. Couldn’t you make all three of those arguments for why the Iraq adventure was a bad idea? Or social security privatization?

3

BKN in Canadia 04.05.11 at 3:48 am

If memory of “Reflections…” is correct, there are multiple examples of all three theses in Burke.

4

mcd 04.05.11 at 3:55 am

They’re reactionary because they argue that the very idea of reform is bad. That good ideas will be bad. Not that bad ideas will be bad.

My opposition to the Iraq war wasn’t that it might go bad. It was that it was horrible. And that the horrible outcomes were part of the plan, not “unanticipated consequences”.

5

zosima 04.05.11 at 5:22 am

As much as I’d like to agree, Hirschmann’s thesis is false, at least insofar as it is supposed to be specific to conservatives. All oppositional argumentation fits one of these categories. Use of these forms is how people of all creeds oppose affirmative arguments. It is policy debate 101.

6

Z 04.05.11 at 8:58 am

FWIW, Hirschman devotes a large part of his book to show that indeed, these three rhetorical tool also appear in progressive thought (with inverted value, of course). The book is really worth reading.

7

zamfir 04.05.11 at 12:01 pm

These are completely normal and justifiable categories of reasons to be skeptical about changes in general, be they political or otherwise. The change is unlikely to be as beneficial as its proponents claim, has real downsides that counteract its upsides, and carries a risk that the outcome is worse than the status quo. If you oppose a change, odds are you have reasons that fall in such categories.

8

Barry 04.05.11 at 1:29 pm

People should read Hirschman’s book. He’s not stupid, and he’s not presenting stupid arguments.

9

philofra 04.05.11 at 1:43 pm

The ‘perversity theses’ is interesting. It is part of Greenspan’s thought process and philosophy, he being a disciple of Adam Smith, who ensconced the idea . Moreover, it is more than rhetorical but also practiced. Free market capitalism is based on, like in what Smith discovered about what is essentially important in developing a civil society: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Smith’s idea sounds perverse in the fact that it says that we must be good to and help ourselves first before we can truly be good to or help others. However, I think that Greenspan has gone overboard with the perversity thesis like most Ayn Randers have. It is hard to change old thinking.

Somebody said that dialectic is the procedure where debate leads into contradiction and perversion is a “concept typically used to repress and disavow contradiction”. My sense is that Greenspan in his rhetoric has always endeavored to disavow the perversion and contradiction of capitalism. Nevertheless, I do think we develop through perversity, like doing ‘the right thing for the wrong reason’. Or is it visa versa.

10

Zamfir 04.05.11 at 2:50 pm

@Barry, I am sure Hirschman’s book-sized argument is far better and subtle, and presumably Blyth’s piece is better for people who have read the book.

But the piece is not written for that audience alone. It introduces the concpet for a new audience, then uses them. It seems fair to judge them based on that introduction alone, since they are to some extent written to be read that way. Call it Blyth’s argument instead of Hirschman’s.

11

chris 04.05.11 at 3:53 pm

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Knowing that the butcher will put in the sausage precisely those ingredients which it is in his interest to put in the sausage does not inspire me with confidence, when I think about it. The naive Smith model works best when the quality of goods is completely obvious to the buyer, but that rarely if ever applies to the complex goods (and even more complex services) that make up much of the economy today.

12

philofra 04.05.11 at 4:24 pm

chris,

You are nitpicking. Trust is part of the equation, that we trust the business person to do the right thing by us, which is generally the case if the business person wants to stay in business.

But Smith was not as naive as you think he was. He knew there were unscrupulous people out there and that business required a form of government intervention. Smith advocated a ‘balance’ be struck between the public and the private.

13

chris 04.05.11 at 5:23 pm

Trust is part of the equation, that we trust the business person to do the right thing by us, which is generally the case if the business person wants to stay in business.

Well, that’s one business model. There are others. As George Bush (I forget which one) once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”

14

philofra 04.05.11 at 6:00 pm

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”

Cynicism aside, I wouldn’t call that a business model with legs. The free market wouldn’t endure long if a majority thought like that. And the Bush (GW) who seemed proud in saying it really didn’t have much of a business prowess, hence the joke.

It is really a contemptuous remark from a contemptuous person, like P.T. Barnum’s “There is a sucker born every minute”. Would we really like to inhabit a world the that seriously held up such business models?

15

philofra 04.05.11 at 6:02 pm

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”

Cynicism aside, I wouldn’t call that a business model with legs. The free market wouldn’t endure long if a majority thought like that. And the Bush (GW) who seemed proud in saying it really didn’t have much of a business prowess, hence the joke.

It is really a contemptuous remark from a contemptuous person, like P.T. Barnum’s “There is a sucker born every minute”. Would we really like to inhabit a world that seriously held up such business models?

16

Keith 04.05.11 at 6:07 pm

digamma @2:
Couldn’t you make all three of those arguments for why the Iraq adventure was a bad idea? Or social security privatization?

You could, but you needn’t even go that far. There’s at least some rhetorical wiggle room on Global Warming* and various economic models. Unlike the arguments for the Iraq Adventure, which fell apart with even the most basic level of scrutiny and privatization of SS even more so. These were just bad ideas from the start and no amount of finessing was ever going to make them credible. That’s why the W Administration through up a giant wall of bullshit around Iraq and then finally just muscled their way through. They never got the chance to do the same with SS privatization because the economy tanked, making all arguments for it ridiculous.

__________
* Notice I said rhetorical wiggle room for GW. The science nullifies the wiggle room but since when has ignoring scientific evidence ever stopped a disingenuous argument?

17

Barry 04.05.11 at 6:27 pm

philofra 04.05.11 at 4:24 pm
” You are nitpicking. Trust is part of the equation, that we trust the business person to do the right thing by us, which is generally the case if the business person wants to stay in business.”

It must be nice in your world. Tell me, how do you manage to post to our world? Does ‘IP’ mean ‘Interworld Protocol’ where you live?

18

lemmy caution 04.05.11 at 6:39 pm

“The ‘perversity theses’ is interesting. It is part of Greenspan’s thought process and philosophy, he being a disciple of Adam Smith, who ensconced the idea .”

Here is a section of the book dealing with the invisible hand:

http://books.google.com/books?id=NjMIu-vQheYC&pg=PA14&dq=rhetoric+of+reaction+burke+adam+smith&hl=en&ei=i1ybTcAdhMCBB-7o3I8H&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Hirschman considers Adam Smith’s argument as being an ancestor of the perversity argument. The perversity argument however is an inversion of the invisible hand argument. The invisible hand is roughly “good things happen from people trying to do not particularly good actions.” The perversity thesis is roughly “bad things happen from people trying to do good things”. The ideas are not really logically related to one another. Adam Smith did not believe perversity arguments.

19

bianca steele 04.05.11 at 8:03 pm

philofra has a point. Would you want a customer who was likely to second-guess your declarations of “BEST VALUE!” much less tell her friends that the peaches are wormy? Trust is important, and government is necessary.

The problem with Greenspan’s approach (which I’ve only read via Blyth) is that instead of addressing the actual crisis that actually happened, it retails a list of preformulated arguments that supposedly can always be used for the type of crisis given. One might easily assume that a knock-down argument now exists and can be relied on further, but all you really get is an impermeable defense against all opposing arguments of a given kind.

Of course, the true meaning of “perversity theses” is that Jonah Goldberg is right and “liberal” is a euphemism for “libertine.”

20

chris 04.05.11 at 8:07 pm

It is really a contemptuous remark from a contemptuous person, like P.T. Barnum’s “There is a sucker born every minute”. Would we really like to inhabit a world the that seriously held up such business models?

What does liking have to do with it? We don’t remember Barnum’s name because he was an abject failure — contemptuous or not, his business succeeded. GWB’s *businesses* didn’t succeed much, but the man himself failed all the way to the top. I don’t know if his personal wealth is greater than what he was born into, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

And if you argue that this is just because the wealthy as a class have gotten wealthier over his lifetime, look at who created that outcome. It is not from the benevolence of the rich that I expect a higher Gini coefficient, but from their regard for their own interest. I don’t *want* a higher Gini coefficient, but as long as the wealthy wield the kind of power they do, I expect one anyway.

21

Salient 04.05.11 at 8:31 pm

Hm. I guess there’s nothing wrong with arguing any of those theses, provided you have the evidence to back them up. What’s apparently missing from the list^1^ is some kind of ‘dupes and schemers’ or ‘sinister motives’ thesis, i.e. someone arguing that some collection of policies will serve to advance the agenda of some horribly horrible group whose agenda should be countered at all cost, and some kind of ‘things are different now’ thesis, i.e. someone arguing that some collection of policies which might have been sound previously are no longer reasonable due to special, singular, critical conditions in evidence nowadays. (This latter one seems to incidentally invoke patriotism in odd ways; consider what a phrase like “the test of our times” brings to mind.) Unlike the other three theses, these two are much more emotive, and correspondingly harder to justify as rational arguments.

I was amused by the title of Greenspan’s fatwa: Dodd-Frank fails to meet the test of our times. Anyone who invokes the ‘things are different now’ thesis to argue… exactly the same thing they would have argued in any time or place… just isn’t bothering to think about what they’re saying. They’re emoting.

^1^Not intended as any criticism of Hirschman

22

philofra 04.05.11 at 9:29 pm

“Adam Smith did not believe perversity arguments.”

Nevertheless, he seemed to have made one.

I realize I have added a new twist to the Perversity Thesis which believes bad things happen from people trying to do good things, that from the rational comes the irrational, like in the French revolution. My twist is that rationality evolve from the seemingly irrational, or that the rational emerges from the perverse.

I believe like the optimistic economist Julian Simon did, ‘that the world needs problems because they make us better. Problems make us better off than if they had never occurred’. To me that is perverse because it says that we learn more from bad things than good things. If things were good all the time we would grow complacent and lazy and therefore not develop or advance. What is further perverse is that we only really engage each other and become cohesive through having problems, because through them we work together to seek solutions and alternatives, and hence acquire the gel that binds us. The emergence of the UN is a good example, emerging after many years of warfare and perverse human behavior that many had tried to avoid, but humanity was too thick headed to comply, until after the fact.

23

hamvaut 04.05.11 at 10:04 pm

I’m a bit wary of this. A lot of things and more than we’d prefer are futile.

24

stubydoo 04.05.11 at 11:06 pm

As folks have been pointing out, the jeopardy, futility and perversity theses are all perfectly legitimate points to make. But only as long as the details behind them are there – if deployed with the kind of vagueness and hand-waving (and seemingly universal application) found here from Greenspan, then they are unimpressive at best.

On numerous occasions I have applied one of the three theses in specific discussions only to find that my interlocutor won’t confront them, and instead falsely accuses me of much worse.

25

Popeye 04.05.11 at 11:56 pm

In isolation, it can be perfectly reasonable to put forth perversity/futility/jeopardy arguments. It is the tendency to rotate through each of these arguments that is especially characteristic of conservatism. The perversity and futility theses in particular are contradictory.

26

ScentOfViolets 04.06.11 at 12:17 am

As much as I’d like to agree, Hirschmann’s thesis is false, at least insofar as it is supposed to be specific to conservatives. All oppositional argumentation fits one of these categories. Use of these forms is how people of all creeds oppose affirmative arguments. It is policy debate 101.

Yep, pretty much. Probably one of the reasons why I don’t much care for oppositional argumentation, as opposed to burden of proof requirements.

27

Nemi 04.06.11 at 11:11 am

@ philofra

I don´t see in what way Smith made a “perversity argument”.

He said that the system was robust in its delivery of good outcomes. It didn’t matter if the butcher only cared for himself.

I haven´t seen the passage where Smith claim that it work IFF the butcher only care for himself. I.e. I haven’t seen him claim that if the butcher instead was altruistic, and directly (instead of only indirectly) cared about his customers wellbeing, things would turn out much worse.

28

philofra 04.06.11 at 8:59 pm

@ Nemi

Smith did not intentionally make a “perversity argument”. But he made a counterintuitive argument, which amounts to the same thing: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

That statement was counterintuitive and had a perverse sense to it because it was contrary to intuition and to common-sense expectation.

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