The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy / Edition 1

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Overview

With engaging wit and subtle irony, Albert Hirschman maps the diffuse and treacherous world of reactionary rhetoric in which conservative public figures, thinkers, and polemicists have been arguing against progressive agendas and reforms for the past two hundred years.

Hirschman draws his examples from three successive waves of reactive thought that arose in response to the liberal ideas of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, to democratization and the drive toward universal suffrage in the nineteenth century, and to the welfare state in our own century. In each case he identifies three principal arguments invariably used: (1) the perversity thesis, whereby any action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order is alleged to result in the exact opposite of what was intended; (2) the futility thesis, which predicts that attempts at social transformation will produce no effects whatever--will simply be incapable of making a dent in the status quo; (3) the jeopardy thesis, holding that the cost of the proposed reform is unacceptable because it will endanger previous hard-won accomplishments. He illustrates these propositions by citing writers across the centuries from Alexis de Tocqueville to George Stigler, Herbert Spencer to Jay Forrester, Edmund Burke to Charles Murray. Finally, in a lightning turnabout, he shows that progressives are frequently apt to employ closely related rhetorical postures, which are as biased as their reactionary counterparts. For those who aspire to the genuine dialogue that characterizes a truly democratic society, Hirschman points out that both types of rhetoric function, in effect, as contraptions designed to make debate impossible. In the process, his book makes an original contribution to democratic thought.
The Rhetoric of Reaction is a delightful handbook for all discussions of public affairs, the welfare state, and the history of social, economic, and political thought, whether conducted by ordinary citizens or academics.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education Supplement

Propelled by an ecumenical motive—to explain the 'massive, stubborn, and exasperating otherness of others', in this case conservative thinkers—and guided, as he himself muses, by 'an inbred urge toward symmetry', Albert Hirschman has written an enjoyable and profound book. He argues that a triplet of 'rhetorical' criticisms—perversity, futility, and jeopardy—'has been unfailingly leveled' by 'reactionaries' at each major progressive reform of the past 300 years—those T. H. Marshall identified with the advancement of civil, political and social rights of citizenship...Charmingly written, this book can benefit a diverse readership.
— Diego Gambetta

New Republic

Events, and the example of a thinker like Hirschman, make it possible at least to hope that the finer side of the Enlightenment—that is, a skeptical but optimistic engagement with the world as it is, as distinct from blindingly overexcited visions of how it might be, if only progressives would stop interfering with it—could soon have its day.
— Geoffrey Hawthorn

Contemporary Sociology

Albert Hirschman's gift to intellectual history is his capacity to subsume complex ideas under simple—indeed smaller than bumper-sticker-size—labels. Mention the word exit at any gathering of social scientists, and everyone will free-associate with the idea that complex organizations and processes renew themselves because people will leave for opportunities elsewhere instead of remaining and fighting for change. Likewise not only with voice and loyalty but also with passions and interests. There is no contemporary social scientist anywhere in the world who has said more (profound) things in fewer (elegant) words than Albert Hirschman. New candidates for inclusion in the Hirschmanian lexicon are perversity, futility, and jeopardy...Hirschman is a master of our art.
— Alan Wolfe

New York Review of Books - Cass R. Sunstein
The Rhetoric of Reaction is a study of the reactionary's tool kit, identifying the standard objections to any and all proposals for reform... Hirschman's work changes how you see the world. It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow... There can be no question about his most characteristic [book]: The Rhetoric of Reaction. The sustained attack on intransigence, the bias in favor of hope, the delight in paradox, the insistence on the creative power of doubt--all these prove a lot of people wrong.
New Republic - Geoffrey Hawthorn
Events, and the example of a thinker like Hirschman, make it possible at least to hope that the finer side of the Enlightenment--that is, a skeptical but optimistic engagement with the world as it is, as distinct from blindingly overexcited visions of how it might be, if only progressives would stop interfering with it--could soon have its day.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Diego Gambetta
Propelled by an ecumenical motive--to explain the 'massive, stubborn, and exasperating otherness of others', in this case conservative thinkers--and guided, as he himself muses, by 'an inbred urge toward symmetry', Albert Hirschman has written an enjoyable and profound book. He argues that a triplet of 'rhetorical' criticisms--perversity, futility, and jeopardy--'has been unfailingly leveled' by 'reactionaries' at each major progressive reform of the past 300 years--those T. H. Marshall identified with the advancement of civil, political and social rights of citizenship...Charmingly written, this book can benefit a diverse readership.
Contemporary Sociology - Alan Wolfe
Albert Hirschman's gift to intellectual history is his capacity to subsume complex ideas under simple--indeed smaller than bumper-sticker-size--labels. Mention the word exit at any gathering of social scientists, and everyone will free-associate with the idea that complex organizations and processes renew themselves because people will leave for opportunities elsewhere instead of remaining and fighting for change. Likewise not only with voice and loyalty but also with passions and interests. There is no contemporary social scientist anywhere in the world who has said more (profound) things in fewer (elegant) words than Albert Hirschman. New candidates for inclusion in the Hirschmanian lexicon are perversity, futility, and jeopardy... Hirschman is a master of our art.
Stanley Hoffmann
It is a marvelously intelligent and original and provocative volume, marked by Hirschman's usual qualities of intellectual playfulness and deep commitment to liberal values... The reader has a sense of being in the presence of a brilliant mind and of a writer at the top of his form.
Stephen Holmes
A brilliant and beautifully written book. It is breathtakingly simple, yet deep with implications... Hirschman provides a kind of Reader's Guide to Reactionary Culture.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674768680
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1991
  • Series: Belknap Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 461,168
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Albert O. Hirschman was Professor of Social Science, Emeritus, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, following a career of prestigious appointments, honors, and awards. Perhaps the most widely known and admired of his many books are Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Harvard) and The Passions and the Interests (Princeton).
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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • 1. Two Hundred Years of Reactionary Rhetoric
    • Three Reactions and Three Reactionary Theses
    • A Note on the Term “Reaction”


  • 2. The Perversity Thesis
    • The French Revolution and Proclamation of the Perverse Effect
    • Universal Suffrage and Its Alleged Perverse Effects
    • The Poor Laws and the Welfare State
    • Reflections on the Perversity Thesis


  • 3. The Futility Thesis
    • Questioning the Extent of Change Wrought by the French Revolution: Tocqueville
    • Questioning the Extent of Change Likely to Follow from Universal Suffrage: Mosca and Pareto
    • Questioning the Extent to Which the Welfare State Delivers the Goods to the Poor
    • Reflections on the Futility Thesis


  • 4. The Jeopardy Thesis
    • Democracy as a Threat to Liberty
    • The Welfare State as a Threat to Liberty and Democracy
    • Reflections on the Jeopardy Thesis


  • 5. The Three Theses Compared and Combined
    • A Synoptic Table
    • The Comparative Influence of the Theses
    • Some Simple Interactions
    • A More Complex Interaction


  • 6. From Reactionary to Progressive Rhetoric
    • The Synergy Illusion and the Imminent-Danger Thesis
    • “Having History on One’s Side”
    • Counterparts of the Perversity Thesis


  • 7. Beyond Intransigence
    • A Turnabout in Argument?
    • How Not to Argue in a Democracy


  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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