The Rhetoric of Reform

There are various reasons that an author may wish to return not to the "classic" that he wrote 30 years ago (this is a widely practiced form of narcissism) but to a book he has just recently published. The book I have in mind is my 1991 work, The Rhetoric of Reaction, in which I identified three staple claims of reactionary rhetoric which have recurred since the French Revolution. I labeled them futility--the claim that all attempts at social engineering are powerless to alter the natural order of things; perversity--the argument that interventions will actually backfire and have the opposite of their intended effect; and jeopardy--the idea that a new, possibly more radical reform will threaten older, hard won liberal reforms.

Largely drafted between 1985 and mid-1989, my book was no doubt written in part as a polemic against the then aggressive and seemingly triumphant neo-conservative positions on social and economic policymaking. Since then, new opportunities have opened up for reformist policymaking, first in Eastern Europe with the collapse of Communism, then in the United States with the passing of the Reagan-Bush era. Under the circumstances, the question arises whether my book can lay claim to having acquired a new function.

Fortunately, I had inserted a chapter "From Reactionary to Progressive Rhetoric" for I had noted, in the course of writing, that some arguments typically used by "progressives" or reformers bear a distinct family likeness to my "reactionary" arguments. This chapter, which I had not originally planned to write, should now have a special relevance, as will be shown.

Actually, reformers should have first of all an interest in my historical survey of the futility, perversity, and jeopardy claims. That survey may help them anticipate, anatomize, and rebut the staple forms of reactionary rhetoric as they are used by conservatives and neo-conservatives. More subtly and perhaps more importantly, reformers are well advised not just to be prepared for conservative attacks against their proposals. They also should look out for the real dangers of these proposals, for which their adversaries will of course have a particularly sharp eye. For these reasons, reformers should know the principal reactionary arguments and take them seriously.

Begin with the perversity argument. Because some recent reforms have misfired, (often because conservatives hobbled them with unattainable conditions) the watch for conceivable perverse outcomes is particularly intense. On occasion, it risks being overdone, even by advocates of reform.

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For example, not long ago, various proposals for strengthening child support were made in the United States. In the case of single-parent children part of that increased support was proposed to be extracted from the absent or "non-custodial" parent (generally the father) by attaching his income through automatic withholding of wage payments. This way of improving the economic status of poor children had been pioneered in the state of Wisconsin and the proposal was to introduce it more widely, through federal legislation.

At that point, an interesting memorandum was circulated to the participants in the discussion. It attempted to list all the conceivable "unintended repercussions" that might flow from the proposed scheme. The list was surprisingly long and diverse. If future fathers who are unmarried face an assured long-term drain on their incomes, how might they react? They may insist on the woman they have impregnated having an abortion; or they may be attracted to "off-the-book" jobs whose wages could not be attached; or they might "disappear," move to another state, and assume a new identity and social security number; etc., etc. The strategies open to individuals intent on evading the proposed measure are obviously extremely varied. It is no doubt important to think in advance about such strategies and about the likelihood that they will be widely adopted, with the result that the proposed policy might be thwarted and that it might generate perverse results, such as a widespread increase in crime, abortions, etc.

The mere visualization of perverse reactions says, of course, very little about their likely incidence. Moreover, as I attempted to show in my chapter on the perversity thesis, many unintended consequences of public policies are not necessarily perverse, and even perverse effects are often such that "some positive margin survives [their] onslaught" (p. 41). In evaluating the prospective outcome of public policies, reformers should certainly be attentive to such possibilities as well as to the probable extent of truly perverse effects. Otherwise they would become affected by oversophisticated skittishness and, in general, be paralyzed by imaginary fears.

The point can be generalized: while the new fashion to look out in advance for dangers that may lurk in reform proposals is to be welcomed, reformers should be aware of the elementary economic principle that a search is not to be pushed beyond the point where the marginal cost of the search begins to exceed its marginal benefit.

Indeed, the relentless prospecting for perverse effects may itself have a perverse effect; it is apt to make the reformer insufficiently alert to emerging dangers. More important, reformers must realize that it is impossible to guard in advance against all possible risks and dangers. The most thorough prospecting will miss out on some negative effects that will appear only as events unfold. This inability to foresee future trouble will strike us as less disturbing once we realize that we are similarly unable to think in advance of the remedial measures that may become available or that we may devise once trouble occurs.

In brief, there is much wisdom in the way Racine sums up the matter in "Andromaque":

...tant de prudence entraîne trop de soinJe ne sais point prévoir les malheurs de si loin[So much prudence requires too much care I am unable to foresee misfortunes from so far]


In chapter six of The Rhetoric of Reaction, I implicitly counsel reformers to use self-restraint in using certain arguments on behalf of their programs and policies, no matter how effective and persuasive they may be or may seem to be. These arguments which I show to be progressive counterparts or equivalents of the reactionary perversity, futility, and jeopardy theses are essentially the following:

1) We should adopt a certain reform or policy because as things are we are caught, or will shortly land in, a desperate predicament that makes immediate action imperative regardless of the consequences--this argument attempts to deflect and neutralize the perversity thesis.

2) We should adopt a certain reform or policy because such is the law or tide of history--this argument is the counterpart of the futility thesis, according to which attempts at change will come to naught because of various "iron laws."

3) We should adopt a certain reform or policy because it will solidify earlier accomplishments--this is the progressive's retort to the jeopardy claim that the reform is bound to wreck some earlier progress.

How difficult would it be for reformers to give up these kinds of arguments? I have just listed them, I believe, in decreasing order of dispensability.

The most dispensable of the three arguments is, to my mind, the alarmist claim that disaster is upon us if we fail to take this or that progressive step. This way of arguing might be called "impending-disaster" or "impending-revolution" blackmail. It has been a common way for various Western progressives or reformers to present their programs, particularly since 1917 when the threat of social revolution appeared on the horizon of Western societies. An important variant of this way of arguing became current after World War II in discussions on aid for the low-income countries of the Third World: here the joint disaster to be fought off--by extending generous financial aid--was revolution and the scary prospect of these countries being "lost" to the Soviet zone of influence.

For some time, these ways of arguing for national or international redistribution of income had gone stale from overuse. Since the events of 1989-91, they have become largely unusable as a result of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. As Gunnar Myrdal argued long ago, progressives can and should make a convincing case for the policies they advocate on the ground that they are right and just, rather than by alleging that they are needed to stave off some imaginary disaster.

What about the argument that a certain progressive policy should be adopted because such is the "tide" of history, the "wave of the future," which it is futile as well as knavish to oppose? This argument also should not be too difficult to discard, in part, I will admit, because, with the latest upheavals and pace Fukuyama, the tide of history appears to run quite strongly against the tide-of-history view of things!

The argument that a certain policy should be adopted because it is in line with some inevitable drift of history so that any opposition to this drift will end up in history's dustbin is actually close to the view that disaster will inevitably strike unless we adopt a certain progressive program. While I was at pains to point out in my book the considerable differences between the perversity and the futility theses, the progressive counterparts to these two arguments turn out to have much in common. In both cases an appeal is made, not to human reason and judgment, but to anxiety and fear. And both views share the characteristic that, as a result of recent historical experience, they are highly discredited at the present time. Hence there is hardly any sacrifice involved in following my advice against using them.

Things are rather different in the case of yet another typical progressive argument which I implicitly ask my progressive friends to use sparingly. It is the argument that a proposed reform is not only compatible with previous progressive achievements, but will actually strengthen them and will be strengthened by them. Similarly, progressives will often argue that "all good things go together" or that there is no conceivable area of conflict between two desirable objectives (for example, "the choice between environmental protection and economic growth is a false one"). In itself, this is an attractive and seemingly innocuous way of arguing, and my advice to reformers cannot be never to use this argument. Given their considerable interest in arguing along mutual support rather than jeopardy lines, reformers may actually come upon, and will obviously then want to invoke, various obvious and non-obvious reasons why "synergy" between two reforms exists or can be expected to come into being.

My point is rather that reformers should not leave it to their opponents but should make an effort to explore the opposite possibility: that of some conflict or friction existing or arising between a proposed and a past reform or between two currently proposed programs. If reformers fail to look in this direction and, in general, are not prepared to entertain the notion that any reform is likely to have some costs, then they will be ill-equipped for useful discussions with their conservative opponents.

There is a worse scenario. The conviction, born from the mutual benefit thesis, that there is no conceivable cost to a given reform and that therefore nothing stands in its way can easily shade over into the feeling that nothing should stand in its way. In other words, those who have convinced themselves that there cannot possibly be any conflict between a reform they advocate and other worthwhile aspects of their society may resentfully turn against these very aspects if and when, against all expectations, they do turn out to be obstacles to "progress." The advocates of some reform will then be tempted to act in accordance with the maxim "the end justifies the means" and may well prove the jeopardy thesis right by their willingness to sacrifice positive accomplishments of their society for the sake of the specific forward step on which they have set their hearts.

An extreme version of this sort of dynamic is powerfully portrayed in Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas, where one man's boundless passion for justice makes him turn into a criminal. There is, of course, no logical necessity for progressives to go down this path or slippery slope, but the fact that they have been known to do so in the past is a strong argument for moderation and qualification of "mutual benefit," "synergy," or "false choice" claims in the future.


My "practical" advice for the reformer can be summed up in the following three points:

1) Reformers should be aware of the principal objections that are likely to be raised against their proposals and attempt to minimize the vulnerability of these proposals on perversity, futility, or jeopardy grounds. While doing so, reformers should not become unduly timorous; in particular, they need not endlessly search for all conceivable perverse effects.

2) Reformers should refrain from claiming that "history is on their side" or that, if a reform they advocate is not adopted, revolution or some other disaster is sure to follow. Since the Communist collapse, these types of arguments are no longer as appealing or persuasive as they once were; there is less need therefore to caution reformers against using or overusing them. Suddenly it has become far more expedient than heretofore to argue for reforms on purely moral grounds.

3) This does not mean, of course, that there are no longer any intransigent poses available to reformers. An example is the popular "synergy" thesis which holds that all reforms, past, present, and future, lend each other mutual support and that any conflict among them is inconceivable. Such an attitude disregards the complexity of the societies we live in and is injurious to democratic deliberations whose essence is tradeoff and compromise. Moreover, the amiable maxim "all good things go together" can mask a reformer's readiness to push through one "good thing" at the cost, if need be, of the others.

Reformers would actually do well to canvass themselves what damage their proposals might inflict on other values and goals of their society. For example, it would be disingenuous to pretend that stimulating economic growth and correcting or attenuating inequalities that arise in the course of growth require exactly the same policies. The problem rather consists in finding an optimal combination of policies that does as little damage as possible to either objective. We are more likely to find something close to this optimum if we admit from the outset that we are in the presence of two objectives between which there exists normally a good deal of tension and conflict.


As originally conceived my book had a simple motive: I wanted to help stem the neo-conservative tide of the eighties. In this paper I have shown how, in a changed political environment, the book may now have a very different use: to suggest a new style and rhetoric around progressive policymaking. Such versatility is unusual; it must be credited to my decision of following up some unintended thoughts that intruded in the course of writing. This decision thus carried a substantial and unexpected reward. The moral: even in intellectual pursuits, honesty can turn out to be the best policy.

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