Tony Abbott, US Republicans, industry associations, PRs, political advisers and many others have sadly lost a man who did much to lay the foundations for, and explain, reactionary rhetoric.

Albert O. Hirschman died late last year (his obituary can be found here). He wrote the book The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility and Jeopardy, which is a useful guide to how people argue when they are trying to prevent change; how progressives try to justify change; and how civil policy debate might be based.

The Rhetoric of Reaction is important because it explains how conservatives oppose change and what sort of narratives they use to do so. For anyone wanting to either construct, or deconstruct, an industry association or political campaign against a policy change the book is essential reading.

Hirschman identified three opposition narratives. The “jeopardy thesis” basically says the cost is not worth it and will endanger whatever we have already achieved. This is the anti-mining and carbon tax argument. It will ruin us all and destroy our country. It leads to all sorts of rhetoric — witness Rio Tinto’s Tom Albanese’s claim that the mining tax represented the greatest sovereign risk threat the company faced anywhere in the world.

The “futility thesis” says that some problems are so large that they can’t be solved. This counsel of despair is not that favoured by anyone in government because it’s not an appealing sound grab in an era when governments are always promising to fix things. A modern variation is “this will take time” and the proverbial “let’s not rush into this”.

The “perversity thesis” is simply that reforms will damage the people they are supposed to help. Wage increases for the low-paid are always opposed on this basis. Another variation on the perversity thesis is, if you feel slightly guilty about not being able to actually prove it, to speak of vague, frightening and unquantifiable “unintended consequences”.

If you think about it, you can oppose almost anything on these grounds and the best at the rhetoric of reaction can probably combine all three at the same time. It’s why we do so little about drugs, climate change, tax reform and just about any other major social or economic reform.

The problem (or advantages, if you think like that) with these tactics are obvious: you don’t need an evidence base and the claims made around them can often be plain wrong; often they’re nice and simple and tend to cut debate on the subject off. Any sound grab by Tony Abbott illustrates both the technique and its shortcomings.

Hirschman also turned his attention to flaws in progressive narratives and suggested they took three forms: the “synergy illusion” that all reforms work together rather than competing (the Blair Third Way philosophy); “imminent danger” — the need for action is urgent to prevent a crisis (environment policy); and “history is on our side” (Trotsky and Castro). Ironically, while historically progressives were normally the best communicators, in the past few decades in the Anglosphere world it has been the conservatives who have been better at simple framing.

They have often been particularly successful at turning these progressive narratives to their own use, for instance using progressive arguments about the dangers of institutionalising people with psychiatric problems by turning them out on the street with limited support. Blair, Bush and Howard were also successful with the imminent danger of weapons of mass destruction and Abbott has been as successful with the imminent danger of boat people.

Hirschman’s alternatives probably appear utopian in Australia and the US today — weigh the benefits and risks of action or inaction and recognise that while we can never be certain about the future, we can understand why we think the way we do about the issues. Sadly, history currently doesn’t seem to be on the side of rationality and civility.

Another important Hirschman book Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations and States, is a great guide to policies on schools, public transport and investment where people react to poor quality, management or performance by “leaving”. It exposes some of the flaws in the Friedman Chicago School concept of “exit” while putting forward an elegant alternative in which “exit” and “voice” (staying put and complaining) work together.

For communicators Hirschman had another lesson. As The Economist said in its obituary of him, he “wrote better in his third language than most economists do in their first.” A biography by Jeremy Adelman will be published soon by Princeton University Press.

Peter Fray

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