Sunday, 11 October 2009

The rhetoric of reaction

This is a rather enjoyable little book, and just the thing to keep your progressive politics warm this winter, with the black cloud of a Tory government on the horizon.

To simplify, Hirschman identifies three recurring (and somewhat contradictory) types of conservative/reactionary arguments.

1. Perversity - a proposed reform will actually have the opposite effect to that intended, or make the problem worse.
2. Futility - the proposed reform will have no real effect.
3. Jeopardy - the idea that a reform will result in the loss of something else (ie a previous reform).

It's a pretty simple classification, but it does capture the shape of recurring reactionary arguments. As I've blogged a bit before, I think sometimes people are attracted more by the structure/shape of an argument rather than its content (or whether it is actually accurate). Hirschman makes the point that some of the arguments that fall into his categories seem to have roots in much older myths.

Just how common these types of arguments are can be demonstrated by a quick dip into one of my favourite issues - mandatory disclosure of shareholder voting records. And just to keep things bang up to date, the following excerpts are taken from the IMA's submission to Walker (PDF). I think they manage to cover all three bases:

A “one- size-fits-all” requirement would undermine progress. As well as looking at the number of managers that disclose, the survey analysed voting details published on web-sites. This showed a wide variation in the matters reported, indicating the complexity of this matter and the difficulty of introducing regulations that would require uniform disclosure. In effect, imposing a “one-size-fits-all” legislative requirement would undermine the progress made to date.


The voting process could be undermined. Public disclosure could undermine and generally “dumb down” the voting process due to the sensitivity of the issues and the confidentiality necessary.


Mechanistic, meaningless reporting would result. Requiring disclosure would result in pages of statistics and tables, which could be meaningless without further analysis.


Now my point - on this occasion - is not that the arguments are wrong, but rather that they do fit pretty well into Hirschman's taxonomy. They are simply reactionary arguments of a classic type.

Final point - obviously conservatives are sometimes reformers, and 'progressives' deploy these types of arguments against them in turn to defend the status quo. So they are not intrinsically Left or Right. Having said that one side does tend to use them a lot more than the other - inevitably since conservatives tend to think the status quo is acceptable/natural and a concerned by the ramifications of moving away from it.

Anyway, a great little book.

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