Saturday, January 06, 2007

How To Argue Like A Reactionary

Suppose you want to argue knowledgeably about economics and political philosophy. Then the literature you should read seems unbounded. Here are three books I read years ago and still like:
  • Hirschman, Albert O. (1991). The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy
  • Myrdal, Gunnar (1953). The Political Element in the Development of Economic Thought (Translated by Paul Streeten), Routledge and Kegan Paul
  • Popper, Karl R. (1945). The Open Society and Its Enemies (Two volumes), George Routledge & Sons
Popper is relevant to the use of "utopian" as a pejorative. Utopias are "recipes for the cook-shops of the future", as Karl Marx put in his preface to the second edition of Capital. Marx and Engels famously opposed their "scientific socialism" to a prior utopian socialism. (See the first and second chapter of the third section of Anti-Dühring, also issued as a pamplet.) Popper, although opposed to so much of what he took Marx's approach to be, agreed with Marx in this. It is not the role of intellectuals to draw up blueprints for some ideal society and then to convince some actual country to adopt them. Plato, in his Republic, was misdirected. Popper thinks we should be trying to ameliorate existing evils, not globally remaking society or mandating happiness.

Myrdal writes a history of economics. He thinks one cannot correctly derive concrete policy proposals from abstract norms, such as "the greatest good for the greatest number". Nevertheless, political economists have often claimed to do exactly that. Myrdal critiques their argument.

Hirschman also writes a history. He explores how those on the right have argued against progressive policies. He identifies three main arguments rightists tend to pull out always:
  • Perversity: attempts to improve matters will frustate themselves and only make matters worse. (Think of the incorrect neoclassical economics textbook argument about minimum wages.)
  • Futility: the matters that we want to change are so deep seated that they cannot be reached, despite all our efforts.
  • Jeopardy: We may be able to effect positive change, but we nevertheless put at risk other desirable features of society.
A slippery slope argument is a kind of jeopardy argument, I think. To express any skepticism about laissez-faire is not to advocate communism. But we are not presented with a choice between only government "non-intervention" and central planning as in no-longer-actually existing socialism.


Michael Greinecker said...

I think the best example of non-utopian thinking is Capitalism and social democracy by Adam Przeworski.

It is the clearest work on the constraints leftist politics face politically.

Robert Vienneau said...

Michael, thanks for the reading suggestion. I am already behind in my reading though. To help you get in the same position, let me point out that the Fall 2006 issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics has a couple of examinations of analytical Marxism.

Michael Greinecker said...

Thank you, that´s great material.

Frank Popper said...

Good choices, including of my relative. I know I'm late in posting this, but it gives me the advantage of pointing out that much Tea Party argument, if you can call it that, assumes that there's laissez-faire and socialism/communism, and that's it. So naturally Obama and now NYC's Di Blasio are s/c's. Sometimes the term is "soft communists." In this view the point of Ocare isn't health. It's about gaining control over everyone, shrinking their freedom and making them subservient to government. If rollerskating offered the Democrats the same chances, they'd be for that too. That's because they're tyrants, dictators and kleptocrats. If you think I'm exaggerating, listen to 30 minutes of conservative talk radio, like New York City's WNBC.