The Rhetoric of Reaction Redux

15 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2022

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: June 10, 2022

Abstract

In The Rhetoric of Reaction, published in 1991, Albert Hirschman identified three standard objections to reform proposals: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. In Hirschman’s account, these objections define reactionary rhetoric. As Hirschman had it, a proposal would be “perverse” if it would aggravate the very problem it is meant to solve; it would be “futile” if it would achieve nothing (e.g., not even dent the problem); it would produce “jeopardy” if it would endanger some other goal, value, or hard-won achievement (such as liberty or economic growth). The rhetoric of reaction comes from both left and right, though in Hirschman’s account, it is a special favorite of the right. Hirschman urged that in light of the rote and even mechanical character of the rhetoric of reaction, some apparently “original and brilliant insights” end up looking “rather less impressive, and sometimes even comical.” In many ways, ours is an Era of Reactionary Rhetoric. The perversity, futility, and jeopardy theses have often been invoked to challenge reforms, including nudges, in such areas as environmental protection, gun control, road safety, COVID-19, food safety, climate change, occupational safety, and civil rights. While the three theses are sometimes supported by the evidence, they are often a form of motivated reasoning -- evidence-free speculations, thus confirming Hirschman’s suggestion that the rhetoric of reaction has “a certain elementary sophistication and paradoxical quality that carry conviction for those who are in search of instant insights and utter certainties.” The long-term challenge is to avoid perversity, futility, and jeopardy – both by meeting the rhetoric of reaction and (more fundamentally) by devising reform proposals that cannot plausibly be subject to reactionary objections.

Keywords: Behavioral economics, unintended consequences, futility, perversity, jeopardy, nudge

JEL Classification: D00, D02, D9, D90, E7

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., The Rhetoric of Reaction Redux (June 10, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4133924 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4133924

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

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Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

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