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A Back-to-Basics Primer for Conservatives

If Biden wins, progressives will feel emboldened. Here’s what they should watch out for.

A Back-to-Basics Primer for Conservatives

If Biden wins, progressives will feel emboldened. Here’s what they should watch out for.

Beware of unintended consequences.

Beware of unintended consequences.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Beware of unintended consequences.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A well-functioning democracy requires at least two parties, armed with different ideas and approaches. If Republicans lose the White House to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, what ideas and approaches should they champion? 

Many Republicans might want to go back to basics and recover some of the foundations of conservative thought, as laid out by such thinkers as Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Russell Kirk. They might not be eager to seek advice from anyone who is not a trusted conservative. But one of the most clarifying accounts of the conservative tradition comes from a remarkable book, “The Rhetoric of Reaction,” written by the economist Albert Hirschman in 1991.

Hirschman himself was no conservative. His aim was to offer a catalog of standard rhetorical “moves” by those opposed to social reform. But Hirschman paid careful attention to centuries of conservative ideas, and he was aware of the power of those moves. He had too much integrity to deny that, some of the time, those who make them are entirely correct.

If Biden is elected and tries to deliver on his campaign promises, those on the right would find Hirschman’s catalog useful.

Hirschman divided the objections to progressive reforms into three different categories: perversity, futility and jeopardy.

Of these, the most effective is the perversity argument. The basic claim is that many seemingly appealing reforms are self-defeating; they hurt the very people they are supposed to help. Societies are systems, and if you interfere with one part of them, you might not like what happens.

Suppose that in an effort to help the working poor, you increase the federal minimum wage to $15 (as Biden is promising to do). The objection is that by doing that, you’ll actually hurt the working poor — because employers won’t be able to hire as many people, meaning that a lot of working people will find themselves priced out of a job.

The claim that a policy has perverse effects does not question the goals of the reformers. It merely doubts their means. It suggests that reformers are clueless. They don’t see that things bite back — and that many public-spirited changes to the status quo end up biting the most vulnerable members of society.

The futility objection is not that reform efforts will have perverse effects; it is that they will have no effects. They are useless.

An illustration of the argument: If you want to do something about climate change, the Green New Deal, or anything like it, won’t achieve much. The U.S. is responsible for less than 15% of the world’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions. The only way to address the problem is to engage China, India and the rest of the world.

Hirschman’s third category — the jeopardy objection — holds that progressive reforms will undermine, destroy or imperil important values and hard-won gains. It’s all very well to propose to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, but the consequence (it might be argued) will be to reduce economic growth. That’s not the best idea during a terrible economic time.

Or suppose that in an effort to ensure stronger protection of the environment and of occupational safety, federal agencies issue a host of new regulations. If they have a crushing impact on small businesses, they might end up hurting a lot of people.

Perversity, futility and jeopardy are standard conservative objections to social reform. Progressives badly need to give a fair hearing to these objections.

In some cases, progressives will have to concede a point or two, or even more. They might decide that their original proposal was wrong in some important respect.

To avoid perversity, progressives might go at the problem from a different direction. Some people think that if you want to help the working poor, a large increase in the Earned-Income Tax Credit is better than a large increase in the minimum wage.

To avoid futility, they might expand the viewscreen. They should agree that domestic greenhouse-gas regulations ought not to be issued in isolation, but as part of an aggressive effort to get China and the rest of the world to do their fair share.

To avoid jeopardy, progressives might make exemptions or adjustments. They should respect the obscure but important Regulatory Flexibility Act, which allows exactly that for small businesses. It is an explicit effort to avoid or reduce the risk that desirable regulations will have unwanted side effects.

In exploring the rhetoric of reaction, Hirschman confessed that he ended up with a more ambitious project than he originally planned. He sought to go beyond “intransigence” on all sides, and to promote “meaningful discussion.” A continuing danger, he warned, is a “dialogue of the deaf,” one that will “function as a prolongation of, and a substitute for, civil war.”

Democracies, he thought, often suffer from arguments that are deployed as conversation-stoppers, but that should be taken instead as conversation-starters. Conservatives have sometimes been right to be concerned about perversity, futility and jeopardy. If a Democrat is in the White House, they will be entitled to start a lot of conversations.

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Cass R. Sunstein at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at