The Rhetoric of Reaction

Yes, reactionaries attack progressive innovations as futile, perverse, and dangerous. And liberals attack reactionary innovations in the same terms. That doesn’t tell me anything about whether, in any given argument, those attacks are sound or not.

I think Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is a great (and mercifully short) book, encompassing a big idea.

And there seems to be a consensus among liberals that Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction makes a real contribution. But I’ve never figured out what that contribution is supposed to be. Of course conservatives opposing liberal initiatives use the rhetoric of perversity, futility, and jeopardy: just like liberals opposing conservative initiatives. What else are you going to say about a bad idea &#8212 say, privatizing Social Security or “reforming” bankruptcy or invading and occupying Iraq or facilitating torture by rolling back habeas corpus &#8212 other than that it won’t do what it’s intended to do &#8212 will, in fact, do the opposite &#8212 and creates all sorts of dangers? And the advocates are going to say that the idea will do just what it’s supposed to, with no bad side-effects and no risks.

It’s useful to lay out the rhetoric of opposition to innovation. But Hirschman seems to think that doing so is the same as proving that opposition is unsound. I don’t get it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: