Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book Review: The Rhetoric of Reaction

This was a really great book.  It made me reflect on just how valuable high school civics courses could be with the right curriculum.  At only 170 pages of actual text, this book would make an excellent centerpiece.

The book addresses three common patterns that reactionary rhetoric falls into, as well as three mirror image patterns that progressive rhetoric falls into.  Being aware of these tendencies is very important in a democracy, too often our political analysis amounts solely to justification rather than analysis.

Hirschman identifies three main types of reactionary rhetoric, the perversity, futility, and jeopardy arguments.  The perversity argument is the assertion that a reform will have the opposite effect intended, the futility argument says that the reform seeks to violate some kind of social law and will have no effect, and the jeopardy argument says the reform will threaten some earlier and more important achievement.  These arguments are frequently brought out as little more than a mad-lib, any issue under the sun can be put into this pattern and we react to it as if it were a plausible argument (the psychology of why this is so would be interesting to learn about, Hirschman doesn't get into that).  The thing is, when these patterns come up there is rarely any evidence to support the analysis, an assertion is simply made that things will be that way, and whatever the psychological reasons for this, we take the argument seriously despite the lack of data or evidence.

Hirschman gives examples of the basic pairs argued by reactionaries and progressives, it's kinda scary how often these arguments are seen, anyone that looks at a comments page of a blog will see them just about daily and often see them being made when there is no data whatsoever backing them up .

Reactionary: The contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.

Progressive: Not to take the contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.

Reactionary: The new reform will jeopardize the older one.

Progressive: The new and old reforms will mutually reinforce each other.

Reactionary: The contemplated action attempts to change permanent structural characteristics("laws") of the social order; it is therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile.

Progressive: The contemplated action is backed up by powerful historical forces that are already "on the march;" opposing them would be utterly futile.

Of course, many of these things may be true in part but the arguments are often made at extremes.  For instance, some anti-poverty programs create work disincentives, however this effect is far too small to offset more than a tiny portion of the overall gain (also, this particular example works well for a perversity effect because it is the policies that limit anti-poverty spending that is generally the work destructive portion, means testing, such as that of Medicaid or SSDI is well established as having a relatively large work disincentive impact, non-means tested programs less so, another good example is limits on welfare which push more people into SSDI which has larger work disincentive effects than welfare programs, perversity cuts both ways).  Reasonable people can disagree about the relative costs and benefits of policies, however, when these rhetorical methods are being used it is almost always a signal that the person engaging in argument is not being rational.  The perversity argument is rarely made to suggest specific program alterations to reduce work disincentives to a minimum, it is almost always made to tell us that the cure is worse than the disease and that poverty alleviations programs will lead to broken families, less people working, and everyone being poorer, assertions that are demonstrably false.

Of course, someone may be making these arguments in a more limited sense, as I did above in regards to means testing.  My point however, is that arguments that take these forms are a red flag that the listener should be particularly suspicious and critical of the argument being made, it is well known that people are gullible with regards to these arguments and the speaker most likely is playing off this gullibility for political ends.  This is why works like this should be taught in high school, it would greatly benefit our democracy if students were taught at a young age what kinds of arguments to be particularly sceptical of and to demand extraordinary evidence in support of.  All of the rhetorical methods described by Hirschman fit this pattern, while not necessarily false, they are arguments that any well-meaning citizen should believe only when extraordinary evidence is given for them.  Otherwise, it is best to simply ignore them as propaganda.

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