I have recently started reading Albert Hirschman’s 1991 book “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.” I’m only 20 pages into it so no telling where it’s going. But so far, it has totally blown me away. The book is an outline of three styles of rhetoric that are commonly used by reactionaries, i.e. those who would react against progress. These are generic arguments good in most any situation. Introducing free speech, extending the franchise, ramping up public education, rearranging the kitchen? You name it these rhetorical devices stand ready and willing.
He labels the first of these “perversity.” Here in while reactionary pretends supports the goal he then goes on to explain that efforts toward that end are certain to backfire. Efforts to improve health care? Such efforts will decrease health care! Universal schooling? Such efforts will lead to wide spread idiocy. Do-gooders make things worse. The audacity of this argument is breath taking. But look at the record! How that French Revolution turn out?
Hirschman points out that observers of the French Revolution quickly deployed this argument. Even before the it all went to hell in a hand basket. Edmund Burke in particular used this perverse argument, and later when it things got ugly he got a lot of credit for being so insightful. So did Burke invent this technique? Hirschman argues that no, Burke was mimicking newly popular argument with a similar structure that had recently arisen in the circles he ran in. I.e. the hypothesis of Adam Smith. Aka, the Invisible Hand. This takes my breath away!
The invisible hand is a perverse argument. But in this case bad actions (individual greed, personal vices, and self interest) have the unintended consequence of creating a vibrant national economy. It’s as if God in his infinite wisdom had sus’d out how to turn his flock of sinners into something constructive. Smith might have given credit to divine providence but choose to give the credit to more amorphous but still spirtual invisible hand. Many of Smith’s readers saw right thru that. Particularly all those commercial actors looking to get the church off their case.
I can’t seem to stop chewing on this. It goes in all kinds of directions.
There are numerous systems where actions sum up to something surprising. I can’t believe that I hadn’t noticed how Evolution and the Invisible Hand are both theories of a kind. In evolution the bad (dyslexic genes, mutations, death, mindless long time) that shapes inconceivably marvelous species. There is, it appears an entire class of theories where acts of ethical kind sum to results of the opposite kind. God works in mysterious ways.
I am enjoying this book.