Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Little Mystery To Be Solved

Ben Hyde writes in “Ascription is an Anathema to any Enthusiasm” Blog (HERE) in:

The Perverse and Invisible Hand”

““I have recently started reading Albert Hirschman’s 1991 book “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.” I’m only 20 pages into it so no telling where it’s going. But so far, it has totally blown me away. The book is an outline of three styles of rhetoric that are commonly used by reactionaries, i.e. those who would react against progress. These are generic arguments good in most any situation. Introducing free speech, extending the franchise, ramping up public education, rearranging the kitchen? You name it these rhetorical devices stand ready and willing.

He labels the first of these “perversity.” Here in while [sic] reactionary pretends supports the goal he then goes on to explain that efforts toward that end are certain to backfire. Efforts to improve health care? Such efforts will decrease health care! Universal schooling? Such efforts will lead to wide spread idiocy. Do-gooders make things worse. The audacity of this argument is breath taking. But look at the record! How that French Revolution turn out?

Hirschman points out that observers of the French Revolution quickly deployed this argument. Even before the it all went to hell in a hand basket. Edmund Burke in particular used this perverse argument, and later when it things got ugly he got a lot of credit for being so insightful. So did Burke invent this technique? Hirschman argues that no, Burke was mimicking newly popular argument with a similar structure that had recently arisen in the circles he ran in. I.e. the hypothesis of Adam Smith. Aka, the Invisible Hand. This takes my breath away!

The invisible hand is a perverse argument. But in this case bad actions (individual greed, personal vices, and self interest) have the unintended consequence of creating a vibrant national economy. It’s as if God in his infinite wisdom had sus’d out how to turn his flock of sinners into something constructive. Smith might have given credit to divine providence but choose to give the credit to more amorphous but still spirtual invisible hand. Many of Smith’s readers saw right thru that. Particularly all those commercial actors looking to get the church off their case

I haven’t yet read Hirschman’s little volume, “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy”, (it’s now on order from Amazon for £13), so I cannot fully dissect what Ben Hyde is asserting.

He seems to be reporting that “Burke was mimicking newly popular argument with a similar structure that had recently arisen in the circles he ran in. I.e. the hypothesis of Adam Smith. Aka, the Invisible Hand.”

I find this intriguing to say the least. Had the “invisible hand” argument really “recently” arose “in the circles he [Burke] ran in”? If so, this is a discovery of momentous importance in the history of economic thought! More to the point: how did I miss it?

Or is it an idea of Hirschman’s that Burke used a rhetorical device to make his case against the French Revolution that was similar in construction to that device which Adam Smith used in the case of “an invisible hand”, with a side assumption on the part of Hirschman that Burke ‘ran in” the “circles” where they discussed Adam Smith’s metaphor of “an invisible hand”?

For this to be true, Hirschman must either have documentary evidence that Smith’s metaphor was widely discussed in the late 18th century (for which I have not found any trace so far) or he must assume that it should have been widely circulated because the metaphor was widely discussed in the late 20th century! Either basis for Hirschman’s argument is in itself a preposterous proposition.

Or, lastly, is it something that Ben Hyde drew from his reading of the first 20 pages of Hirschman’s book? Until I receive the book I cannot comment or sort out who was the author of what part of Ben’s post.

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Blogger exuberance said...

You can see the bit I'm running away with here:


Click on page 14.

11:51 pm  

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