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The rhetoric of reaction redux

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 August 2022

Cass R. Sunstein*
Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA


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. A proposal would be “perverse” if it would aggravate the very problem it is meant to solve; it would be “futile” if it would not even dent the problem; it would produce “jeopardy” if it would endanger some other goal or value (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. In recent years, the perversity, futility and jeopardy theses have often been invoked to challenge reforms, including nudges. While the three theses are sometimes supported by the evidence, they are often evidence-free speculations, 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.”

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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