Classic Conservative Arguments Taken Apart

A review of The Rhetoric of Reaction
(Author: Albert O. Hirschman)

Hirschman’s 1991 analysis of classic conservative rhetoric easily stands the test of time. It’s incisive, savvy about human psychology, and is empirically rooted in history. Inspired by his analysis, my review will include a couple topics. The first is (what I regard as) the depravity of conservative intellectuals. The second is my speculative prediction about what the Big Debate of the 21st century will be. Then I’ll conclude with criticisms of Hirschman’s project.

As introduction, let’s do a speed tour of the key ideas in his approach.

Hirschman adroitly centered his entire analysis around the historical development of the concept of citizenship, as outlined in a 1949 lecture by T.H. Marshall. Marshall was famous for his categorization of rights at the civil, political, and social levels. His lecture grandly described the securing (1) of civil rights during the 18th century (e.g. property rights, freedom from coercions), (2) of political rights during the 19th (universal suffrage), and (3) social rights during the 20th (principally, the welfare state).

Hirschman borrows Marshall’s chronology to analyze how conservatives reacted against each of these historical developments. In other words, how did conservative politicians and intellectuals argue against each of these progressive projects? What forms did their reactionary rhetoric take?

Hirschman declares that there are really just three such forms: the Perversity thesis, the Futility thesis, and the Jeopardy thesis:

  • Perversity: the new proposal will just make things worse
  • Futility: laws of nature guarantee that implementing the proposal will have no relevant effect
  • Jeopardy: implementation is likely to destroy other valuable, hard-won advances or institutions

Speed tour: The failures of the French Revolution provide an apropos starting point for Hirschman’s tour through history. Change should only be incremental, cries Edmund Burke. Radical liberation and democracy are dangerous! Later, in 19th-century Britain, two voting reform proposals produce howls of horror. Later, in the 20th century, Keynesian stimulus measures violate classical economics and can only lead to dependency and ruin. These are the slow-moving kinds of political convulsions that Hirschman dissects, identifying various reactionary objections in terms of his three forms. Progressives push to expand rights to attain freedom and equality; and reactionary arguments deride their naivety.


Towards the book’s end, Hirschman turns the spotlight on three parallel progressive arguments, and finds them as questionable as the three reactionary theses. He summarizes, in comparative form:

  Reactionary Argument Progressive Rejoinders
Perversity The contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences Not to take the contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.  (“Imminent Danger”)
Futility The contemplated action attempts to change permanent structural characteristics (“laws”) of the social order; it is therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile. The contemplated action is backed up by powerful historical forces that are already “on the march”; opposing them would be utterly futile. (“Historical Inevitability”)
Jeopardy The new reform will jeopardize the older one. The new and the old reforms will mutually reinforce each other.  (“Synergy”)

For any particular action or reform, it is a priori difficult to determine whether the reactionary argument or the progressive argument is more plausible, or how likely the supposed consequences are. The factors are complex, and our understanding of history has limits. Historically, most of the reactionary arguments have eventually been proved wrong.

But conservatives persistently use these arguments to destroy nuance and to incite terror among the uninformed. They hide from view not only the alternative theses but also past progressive successes. Meanwhile, the more literary among conservatives mock the liberals and progressives and social democrats for their naïve and ridiculous beliefs, and for their humorlessness.

In general, a skeptical, mocking attitude toward progressives’ endeavors and likely achievements is an integral and highly effective component of the modern conservative stance. In contrast, progressives have remained mired in earnestness. Most of them have been long on moral indignation and short on irony.

This is the conservative depravity I see. There’s no interest in democratic deliberation. The left is simply foolish and irredeemable. It’s a depravity suffused with self-satisfaction and self-interest. It fuels the vulgar sport of “owning the libs.” And, sadly, the rhetoric is effective: it resonates with familiar mythologies, narratives, and irrational thought patterns.

Maddeningly, the reactionary arguments themselves are faulty. After laying out the pairs of arguments shown above, Hirschman explains:

Once the existence of these pairs of arguments is demonstrated, the reactionary theses are downgraded, as it were: they, along with their progressive counterparts, become simply extreme statements in a series of imaginary, highly polarized debates. In this manner they stand effectively exposed as limiting cases, badly in need, under most circumstances, of being qualified, mitigated, or otherwise amended.

These arguments are mere contraptions, specifically designed to make dialogue impossible. Who knows whether many conservatives even realize they’re doing this. But it makes democracy ineffective and civil war permanent.

It’s not, certainly, that progressives’ argumentation is angelic. Some on the left are dead certain that they’re right and there is no conceivable benefit of patience. Others are blind to potential costs, or are needlessly alarmist.

Now and the Future

Marshall’s three historical stages of progress got me curious about what a “fourth stage” in the 21st century could be about, now that our welfare state seems to be fully entrenched and our economic rights secured. (Right?) There might be reasons to not buy Marshall’s neat “one innovation per century” scheme, but, heck, it makes for an interesting thought experiment. Here are four possibilities:

1. Racial/gender/sexual justice. I first learned about Hirschman’s book, incidentally, in a podcast by Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell in which, after they discussed Marshall’s speech and Hirschman’s analysis, they speculated about how or whether it’s applicable to 2021. Somewhat to my surprise, their presumption was that the next stage of progressive struggle would center on identity issues.

Identity-oriented social justice certainly does extend the notion of equality of opportunity, and is a dominant discussion these days. Though, does it match the heft and “scale” of the previous three social innovations? Is it the same kind of thing? Can laws fix the problem? I am uncertain.

Regardless, any number of reactionary arguments can easily be identified. (Note: I am not aspiring for each of these to identify all applicable arguments.)

Reactionary Arguments Progressive Rejoinders
• Focusing on race will divide us even further. (Perversity)
• Men and women are fundamentally different and no law will change that. (Futility)
• Discrimination is already fully against the law.  (Futility)
• Gender fluidity undermines Judeo-Christian foundations.  (Jeopardy)
• Reforms will fix the unfulfilled commitments in the Declaration and the Constitution. (Synergy)
• The arc of history bends towards justice, and fighting against it merely generates unnecessary costs.  (Historical Inevitability)

2. Climate action. Whether anyone likes it or not, climate-related problems will confront us for at least the next one hundred years. It’s noteworthy that this particular debate, unlike the others, isn’t focused on individual rights or the form/shape of government. It is, rather, about a coordinated response to a global, physical threat.

Reactionary Arguments Progressive Rejoinders
• Climate change is unalterable. (Futility)
• Action would be costly to the point of ravaging our standard of living. (Jeopardy)
• Inaction will bring disastrous consequences. (Imminent Danger)

Certainly, though, one facet of the climate-action debate concerns the ever-controversial topic of globalism. Should national sovereignty yield to global laws? America Firsters say no, sometimes on the basis of political theory, and sometimes rooted in xenophobia or impunity.

3. Secularization. This, of course, is a very slow-moving one. Admitted atheism became increasingly common in the 19th and 20th centuries; however, religion is thousands of years old and today is doggedly adhered to by a large portion of the citizenry. I’ll have more to say about it in the next section.

Secularization isn’t really a political proposition per se. You rarely see public arguments that “we should marginalize religion and enforce secularism,” though there certainly are relevant legal skirmishes, e.g. the wedding cake fight. But if religious belief declines yet further, perhaps a dramatically-escalated “last stand” could flare up in response.

4. The welfare state. All right, no, economic rights have not been adequately secured for everyone in the US. Though, generally our welfare state takes pretty good care of us.

The welfare state, as I’ve discussed previously, will likely be a fixture in developed economies as far as the eye can see. It has withstood most of the attacks by neoliberalism, and, in the US, Republican Trump unabashedly campaigned on protecting it.

Of course, the applicable standard for Democratic Socialists is the Nordic Model, and the obvious next step in that direction is universal health care. Which Republicans have resisted, and can be expected to keep resisting.

Transfer payments certainly address some components of economic security. But there also are more difficult, systemic issues such as gig working, offshoring, and automation. Progressive solutions to these presumably are about industrial planning and/or greater regulation of the private sector. Attempts to implement these would almost certainly meet reactionary resistance. (Of late, retraining is not seen as an effective enough solution.)

Although inequality is unavoidable, I think it’s undeniable that rights to economic security have not yet been fully achieved. And thus it is plausible to think of Marshall’s third stage as “Economic Rights I” and that the 21st century could turn out to be “Economic Rights II.”

Reactionary Arguments Progressive Rejoinders
• Further government expansion into the economy will damage it and lead to a smaller pie. (Jeopardy/Perversity)
• Government planning will never outperform the market (Futility)
• Systemic forces are destroying the middle class. (Imminent Danger)

So, which of these four is most likely to win the prize as the issue of this century? I don’t rightly know, but all seem highly likely to be progressive-vs-reactionary battlegrounds.

Another dark-horse possibility: reform of public discourse, which may involve regulating media and narrowing free speech rights. The situation in 2022 has become untenable and even dangerous; however, coherent, serious reform proposals have not yet been formulated.

Critique of Hirschman’s Approach

Hirschman’s scope of analysis is limited, and I think unnecessarily so. His focus is mainly on progress within Western liberalism. However, from a wider historical perspective, there is a deeper form of reactionary thinking: namely, religious animosity towards the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and various manifestations of modernism.

The liberal philosopher Mark Lilla in 2016 wrote a fascinating book on this topic called The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. (Lilla is also known for a critique of revolutionary thinking called The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics, in which he describes “tyrannophilia”, a narcissistic attraction of intellectuals to tyrants who they imagine are translating their own ideas into political reality.)

Lilla’s portraits of reactionary intellectuals in The Shipwrecked Mind cover a lot of territory. Just to convey a flavor, here are a few interesting quotes. Regarding students and enthusiasts of the political theorist Leo Strauss, Lilla writes

… they are fed a lot of cloying scholarship about the American founding, the glories of statesmanship, the burden of prudence, and the need for civic virtue. They are also encouraged to think that America has been slipping into nihilism since the 1960s and that, however vulgar, right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism contribute to the nation’s recovering its basic sense of right and wrong.

The most intriguing themes in Lilla’s book stem from Catholic and Jewish scholarship that pines for a pre-Enlightenment “Golden Age,” when God’s law (and the theocratic order) was superior to earthly laws and institutions. He describes Augustine’s dramatic rescue of Christian confidence after the sack of Rome in 410, and then comments on Christianity’s subsequent failings:

The shock of the Reformation for medieval Christians was as great as that experienced by Roman Christians after 410, with one important difference: after the assaults of Luther, Calvin, and the radical reformers, the Roman Catholic Church never got its modern Augustine. Not after the Enlightenment, either—or the American and French Revolutions, or the industrial revolution, or the socialist revolutions of the nineteenth century, or the spread of Darwinism, or the secularization of European schools, or the extension of the suffrage, or the rise of communism and fascism, or decolonization, or birth control, or feminism, or any other major historical change in the modern era.

Lilla describes 19th-century Catholic historians who lamented that

With moral debate confined within the flexible bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, important human values would have been preserved from secular dogmatism and skepticism. We would have been spared the brutality of the industrial era, the monsters of modern science, and the empty individualism of our time.

And he cites more recent writing by Alasdair MacIntyre, paraphrased:

Once upon a time the Aristotelian tradition of moral reflection, which ran continuously from antiquity through the Catholic Middle Ages, gave Europeans a coherent narrative for understanding and practicing virtue in their individual and collective lives. That tradition was destroyed by the “Enlightenment project,” which undid the work of centuries—not only the work of the Church, but the work any healthy society undertakes to ground morality in a living tradition of practice. By destroying this tradition, the Enlightenment unwittingly prepared the way for acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today, in a society that “cannot hope to achieve moral consensus.”

As these quotes illustrate, there is still a strong, reactionary, orthodox tradition of what we might otherwise be inclined to dismiss as uneducated paleoconservatism. It looks darkly upon the ideals underpinning the modern era.

Although patriotic conservatives (as well as propagandists) in the US do sometimes criticize excessive faith in human reason (e.g. “social engineering”, the “tragic view”, Hubris/Nemesis), they also faithfully revere our Constitution. And they normally do not question the rationalist Enlightenment values which are baked into our Constitution, including, not least, “natural rights”.

However, the success of Trump’s populism has led to a new, reactionary, “post-liberal,” National Conservatism movement that is working to rationalize a reactionary world view without any reference to Trump himself. Their chief organizer, Yoram Hazony, is a vociferous critic of Enlightenment thinking.

This is why I think Hirschman should not have limited his scope to the modern era. It could be that, in 1991, he thought the relevance of religious conservatism to our society was low and fast-diminishing. But the Trump era has educated all of us, and it isn’t so crazy to think that National Conservatism will eventually devour the Republican Party. Let me at least attempt to characterize NatCon’s reactionary arguments here, and progressive rejoinders, in Hirschman’s framework:

Reactionary Arguments Progressive Rejoinders
• A woke obsession with identity will just divide us further (Perversity)
• It’s impossible for the government to right all social wrongs. (Futility)
• Liberalism’s unwitting effect is to destroy tradition and the institution of family. (Jeopardy)
• Mythical belief systems have lost their value. (Historical Inevitability)
• If we don’t stop them, religious fanatics will end democracy and result in fascism. (Imminent danger)
• Recognizing alternative family structures serves to preserve the family tradition. (Synergy)

I also have a sociological-level criticism that applies to both Hirschman and Lilla: their preoccupations with academic debates. For example, when Lilla spoke about the way that we arbitrarily concoct historical intervals, and we string together just-so narratives, and some people are drawn to the picture of a “fated history of decline.” This phrase, remarkably, set me off. Who amongst us walks around with such poetic theatrics in our heads? It’s all so hyper-intellectual, so unconcerned with the actual thoughts of real people.

It calls into doubt the importance of debates like these, occurring as they do inside an elite bubble. Indeed, I only think they are important to the extent that they influence public affairs. Which they sometimes can, certainly; but the level of indirection is great. Intellectual discourse is occasionally listened to by politicians and partisan media, mainly as a potential source of talking points. Politically-aware citizens, in turn, occasionally listen to those talking points, mainly as a source of entertainment or self-flattery.

My critical view of scholars like Hirschman and Lilla also is triggered in the way Hirschman indicts reactionary thinkers’ smug, ironic demeanors. Labeling those thinkers as “depraved” is my first reaction. But then my second is, what the fuck? Who (besides fellow scholars) gives a rat’s ass about tone? This is civilization-directing stuff, and we should only be evaluating the content!

The only defense of Hirschman’s meta-commentary here (that I can see) is that, admittedly, a supercilious tone is an unfair though effective demagogic tactic. If so, we certainly should call out conservatives who mock liberals. But Hirschman says nothing about how or why this demagogic tactic works, and so his meta-commentary comes off as a mere flash of resentful pique.

How I think it generally works in practice is, politicians and pundits borrow the best lines from the national op-ed pages, they publicly repeat them in their own words, and most voters grow more cynical and polarized. (Reality.)

But I haven’t yet said what I think is the very best thing about Hirschman’s work: it’s really useful, usable, rhetorical bug spray.

Textbook discussions of political rhetoric commonly focus on logical fallacies, symbolism, appeals to emotion, and other such generic rhetorical tricks that can be applied as well to selling soap as they are to political ideology. In contrast, Hirschman gets at the deepest core of progressive versus conservative thinking, without getting mired in definitions nor in ephemeral electoral politics.

Now, if only someone could make these magical insights more accessible to citizens. If only people had more humility and skepticism about the political and historical stories that have formed their identities.

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