Reactionary Rhetoric

Unwilling to argue directly against reform, opponents of progressive impulses in society have attempted to show instead that reformist measures will invariably have effects that are contrary to the ones intended


IN A FAMOUS 1949 LECTURE ON THE “DEVELOPMENT OF citizenship” in the West, the English sociologist T. H. Marshall distinguished among the civil, political, and social dimensions of citizenship and then proceeded to explain, very much in the spirit of the Whig interpretation of history, how the more enlightened human societies had tackled these three dimensions one after another, conveniently allocating about a century to each. According to his scheme, the eighteenth century witnessed the major battles for the institution of civil citizenship, from freedom of speech, thought, and religion to the right to evenhanded justice—in other words, for the “Rights of Man.” In the course of the nineteenth century it was the political aspect of citizenship—that is, the right of citizens to participate in the exercise of political power—that made major strides, as the right to vote was extended to ever larger groups. Finally, the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century extended the concept of citizenship to the social and economic sphere, by recognizing that minimum standards of education, health, economic well-being, and security are basic to the life of a civilized person as well as to the meaningful exercise of the civil and political attributes of citizenship.

When Marshall painted this magnificent canvas of staged progress, the third battle for the assertion of citizenship rights, the one being waged on social and economic terrain, seemed to be well on its way to being won, particularly in the Labour Party—ruled, social-securityconscious Britain of the immediate postwar period. A generation or so later it appears that, as Ralf Dahrendorf recently reminded us, Marshall was overoptimistic on that score and that the notion of the socioeconomic dimension of citizenship as a natural complement of the civil and political dimensions has run into considerable difficulties and stands in need of substantial rethinking.

Indeed, is it not true that not just the last but each and every one of Marshall’s three progressive thrusts has been followed by ideological counterthrusts of extraordinary force? And have not these counterthrusts often led to convulsive social and political struggles, and to setbacks for progressive programs, and to much human suffering and misery? The backlash so far elicited by the welfare state may in fact be rather mild in comparison with the onslaughts and conflicts that followed upon the assertion of individual freedoms in the eighteenth century and upon the broadening of political participation in the nineteenth. Once we contemplate this protracted and perilous seesawing of action and reaction, we come to appreciate more than ever the profound wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead’s well-known observation that “the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” It is surely Whitehead’s statement, rather than any account of smooth, unrelenting progress, that catches the deeply ambivalent essence of the story Marshall so blandly called the “development of citizenship.”

THERE ARE GOOD REASONS, THEN, FOR FOCUSING ON the reactions to the successive forward thrusts. It is not my aim here to write yet another essay on the nature and deep roots of conservative thought. Nor am I going to embark on a broad and leisurely historical review of the successive reforms and counterreforms, theses and countertheses, since the French Revolution. Rather, I shall focus on the common or typical arguments unfailingly made by the great reactive movements of the past two centuries. My emphasis will be on the major polemical maneuvers engaged in by those who set out to debunk and roll back “progressive” policies and movements of ideas— by the forces, that is to say, of reaction. Chiet among these arguments is what might be called the thesis of the perverse effect.

The thesis of the perverse effect is closely connected with the semantic origin of the term reaction. The couple action and reaction came into currency as a result of Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which asserted that “to every Action there is always opposed an equal Reaction.” Having thus been singled out for distinction in the prestigious science of mechanics, the two concepts spilled over into other realms and were widely used in the analysis of society and history in the eighteenth century. No derogatory meaning whatsoever attached at first to the term reaction. The remarkably durable infusion of such meaning took place during the French Revolution—specifically, after its great watershed, the events of Thermidor. It is already noticeable in Benjamin Constant’s youthful tract Des Réactions politiques, written in 1797 expressly to denounce what Constant perceived as a new chapter of the Revolution, in which the reactions against the excesses of the Jacobins might themselves engender far worse excesses. This very thought may have contributed to the pejorative meaning that was soon attached to the term. More important, the spirit of the Enlightenment, with its belief in the forward march of history, survived the Revolution, even among its critics, notwithstanding the Terror and other mishaps. One could deplore the excesses of the Revolution, as Constant certainly did, and yet continue to believe both in history’s fundamentally progressive design and in the Revolution’s part in it. Such must have been the dominant contemporary attitude. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why those who “reacted” to the Revolution in a predominantly negative manner came to be perceived and denounced as “reactionaries.”

The semantic exploration of reaction points straight to an important characteristic of reactionary thinking. Because of the stubbornly progressive temper of the modern era, reactionaries live in a hostile world. They are up against an intellectual climate that attaches a positive value to the loftv objectives proclaimed and actively pursued by their adversaries. Given this state of public opinion, reactionaries are not likely to launch an all-out attack on those objectives. Rather, they will endorse them, sincerely or otherwise, but then attempt to demonstrate that the actions undertaken in their name are ill conceived; indeed, they will most typically argue that these actions will produce, by way of a series of unintended consequences, the exact contrary of the objectives that are being pursued.

This, then, is the thesis of the perverse effect. It asserts not merely that a movement or policy will fall short of its goal or will occasion unexpected costs or negative side effects but that the attempt to push society in a certain direction will result in its moving in the opposite direction. Being simple, intriguing, and devastating (if true), the argument has proved popular with generations of reactionaries as well as with the public at large. It is not, of course, the exclusive property of reactionaries, and it is most generally to be heard among groups that are out of power. In what follows I intend to look at how the argument has been wielded against attempts to expand the civil, political, and social and economic aspects of citizenship.

A Vengeful Providence?

LIKE MANY OTHER ELEMENTS OF REACTIONARY THINKing, the thesis of the perverse effect was first put forward in the wake of the French Revolution. Actually, there was little need for inventive genius: As liberté, égalité, fraternite turned into the dictatorship of the Comité de Salut Public (and later into that of Bonaparte), the idea that certain attempts to achieve liberty are bound to lead to tyranny instead almost forced itself upon the mind. Edmund Burke predicted such an outcome as early as 1790, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. There he prognosticated that “an ignoble oligarchy founded on the destruction of the crown, the church, the nobility, and the people [would] end all the deceitful dreams and visions of the equality and rights of men.” He conjured up the specter of military interventions during various civil disorders and exclaimed, “Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!”

The argument took root and was to be repeated in many forms. Perhaps the most general, if heavy-footed, formulation is that of the German Romantic political economist Adam Müller, who proclaimed, when the Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath had run their course,

The history of the French Revolution constitutes a proof, administered continuously over thirty years, that man, acting by himself and without religion, is unable to break any chains that oppress him without sinking in the process into still deeper slavery.

Here Burke’s conjectures have been turned into a rigid historical law that could serve as an ideological prop for the Europe of the Holy Alliance.

Burke’s uncanny ability to project the course of the French Revolution has been attributed to the very strength of his passionate engagement with it. But his formulation of the perverse effect may well have had an intellectual origin as well: he was steeped in the thought of the Scottish Enlightenment, which stressed the importance of the unintended effects of human action. The best-known application of this notion was the ‟invisible hand” doctrine of Adam Smith, with whose economic views Burke had expressed total agreement.

Smith, like Mandeville and others (such as Pascal and Vico) before him, had shown how individual actions motivated by greed— or, less insultingly, by selfinterest—can have a positive social outcome in the shape of an orderly or prosperous commonwealth. Expressing these ideas with poetic pith toward the end of the century, Goethe defined his Mephisto as “a part of that force that ever wills evil, but ever brings forth good.”

In this manner the intellectual terrain was well prepared for arguing that on occasion the opposite might happen. This was exactly what Burke did in contemplating the unprecedented effort of the French Revolution to reconstruct society: he switched the places of good and evil in Goethe’s statement and asserted that the social outcome of the revolutionaries’ striving for the public good would be evil, calamitous, and wholly contrary to the goals and hopes they were professing.

From one point of view, then, Burke’s proposition looks (and may have looked to him) like a minor variation on a well-known eighteenth-century theme. From another, it was a radical ideological shift from the Enlightenment to Romanticism and from optimism about progress to pessimism. It seems possible to me that large-scale and seemingly abrupt ideological shifts often take place in this fashion. Formally they require only a slight modification of familiar patterns of thought, but the new variant has an affinity with very different beliefs and propositions and becomes embedded in them to form a wholly new gestalt, so that in the end the intimate connection between the old and the new is almost unrecognizable.

In the present case, the old was the slow emergence of a new kind of hope for world order. From the sixteenth century on it was widely agreed that religious precept and moral admonition could not be relied on to restrain and reshape human nature so as to guarantee social order and economic welfare. But with the rise of commerce and industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, influential voices proposed that some of the ineradicable “vices” of men, such as persistent self-seeking, could, properly channeled, produce a workable and perhaps even a progressive society. To Pascal, Vico, and Goethe, this paradoxical process suggested the intervention of a Providence that is remarkably benign, forgiving, and helpful as it transmutes evil into good. The optimism of this construction was enhanced further when the pursuit of self-interest through trade and industry lost its stigma and was accorded social prestige instead. At that point there was no longer a sharp contrast between the means and the end, or between process and outcome, and the need for the magical intervention of Divine Providence became less compelling: Adam Smith barely allowed it to survive, secularized and a bit anemic, as the invisible hand.

The French Revolution caused Divine Providence to be pressed back into active service but in a shape that was anything but benign: its task now was to foil the designs of men, whose pretensions to the building of an ideal society w ere to be exposed as naive and preposterous, if not criminal and blasphemous. ‟Der Mensh in seinem Wahn” (man in his delusion), that ‟worst of terrors,” as Schiller put it in one of his best-known poems, had to be taught a salutary if severe lesson.

Joseph de Maistre in particular ascribed refined cruelty to the Divine Providence that he saw at work throughout the Revolution. In his Considerations surla France (1797) he came forward with an extravagant formulation of the perverse effect as the very essence of Divine Providence.

The efforts a people make to attain a certain objective are precisely the means employed by Providence to keep it out of reach. . . . If one wants to know the probable result of the French Revolution, one only needs to examine the points on which all factions were in agreement: all wanted the . . . destruction of universal Christianity and of the Monarchy; from which it follows that the final result of their efforts will be none other than the exaltation of Christianity and Monarchy.

All those who have written or meditated about history have admired this secret force which mocks human intentions.

Maistre’s construction of Divine Providence is no doubt exceptional in its elaborate vengefulness. But the basic feature of the perversity thesis has remained unchanged: man is held up to ridicule, by Divine Providence and by those privileged social analysts who have pierced its designs, for setting out to improve the world radically and for going radically astray. What better way to show him up as half foolish and half criminal than to prove that he is achieving the exact opposite of what he is proclaiming as his objective?

The Foolish Majority

THIS LINE OF REASONING SURFACES AGAIN DURING our next episode, the broadening of the franchise in the nineteenth century. New reasons for affirming the inevitability of a perverse outcome of that process were now put forward by the emergent social sciences, To appreciate the climate of opinion in which these arguments arose, it is useful to recall contemporary attitudes toward the masses and toward mass participation in politics.

European society had long been highly stratified, whth the lower classes being held in the utmost contempt by both the upper and the middle classes. “The occupation of a hairdresser,” Burke wrote, “or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person—to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. . . . the state suffers oppression if such as they . . . are permitted to rule.” He commented on the “innumerable servile, degrading, unseemly, unmanly, and often most unwholesome and pestiferous occupations to which by the social economy so many wretches are inevitably doomed.”

Such remarks, made in an offhand manner, suggest that Burke’s primary emotion toward the “lower orders” was not so much class antagonism and fear of revolt as utter contempt, a feeling of total separateness, even outright physical revulsion, much as in caste societies. This mood carried over into the nineteenth century and could only have been enhanced by the cityward migration of impoverished rural folk which came with industrialization. It was compounded by fear as Burke’s “wretches” took to staging violent political outbreaks, particularly in the 1840s. After one such episode, in 1845 in Lucerne, the young Jacob Burckhardt wrote from Basel,

Conditions in Switzerland—so disgusting and barbarous—have spoilt everything for me, and I shall expatriate myself as soon as I can. . . . The word freedom sounds rich and beautiful, but no one should talk about it who has not seen and experienced slavery under the loud-mouthed masses, called ‘the people.’ ... I know too much history to expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will mean the end of history. . . .

It would be easy to collect additional evidence on the extent to which the idea of mass participation in politics, even in the watered-down form of universal suffrage, seemed aberrant and potentially disastrous to a good part of Europe’s elites. Universal suffrage was one of Flaubert’s favorite bêtes noires, a frequent butt of his passionate hatred of human stupidity. The farther universal suffrage extended its sweep across Europe, the more strident became the elite voices that stood or arose in unreconciled opposition to it. For Nietzsche, popular elections were the ultimate expression of the “herd instinct,” a telling term he coined to denigrate all trends toward democratic politics. Even Ibsen, acclaimed in his time as a progressive critic of society, harshly attacked the majority and majority rule. In An Enemy of the People (1882) the play’s hero. Dr. Stockmann, thunders,

Who forms the majority in any country? I think we’d all have to agree that the fools are in a terrifying, overwhelming majority all over the world! But in the name of God it can’t be right that the fools should rule the wise!

The undoubted advance of democratic political forms in the second half of the century occurred despite a diffuse mood of skepticism and hostility. Then, toward the century’s end, this mood found a more sophisticated expression, as medical and psychological discoveries showed human behavior to be motivated by irrational forces to a much greater extent than had previously been acknowledged. Among the several political ideas that can be considered to be, in this manner, reactions to the advances of the franchise and of democracy in general, one of the more prominent and influential was articulated by Gustave Le Bon, in his best-selling Psychologie des foules, first published in 1895. The book also exemplified once again the attraction of reactionary thinkers to the perverse effect.

Le Bon’s principal argument challenged commonsense understandings by invoking what is known to economists as the fallacy of composition. What applies to the individual, he insisted, does not necessarily hold tor the group, much less for the crowd. Impressed by recent research findings on infection and hypnosis (but unaware of the simultaneously proceeding work of Freud, which would shortly show individuals themselves to be subject to all manner of unconscious drives), Le Bon drew a sharp dichotomy between the individual and the crowd: the individual was rational, perhaps sophisticated, and calculating; the crowd was irrational, easily swayed, unable to weigh pros and cons, given to unreasoning enthusiasms, and so on: “None too good at reasoning, the crowd is on the contrary much given to action.”

In fin de siècle Europe, Le Bon’s theory had obvious political implications. It saw the prospects for national and international order as quite gloomy: with the franchise spreading, Le Bon’s irrational crowds were installed as important actors in an ever larger number of countries. Moreover, the book’s last twro chapters, “Electoral Crowds” and “Parliamentary Assemblies,” supplied specific arguments against modern mass-based democracy. Here Le Bon did not argue directly against universal suffrage; rather, like Flaubert, he spoke of it as an absurd dogma that was unfortunately bound to cause a great deal of harm just as had earlier, superstitious beliefs. The perverse effect is invoked in the final, crowning argument of the book: democracy will increasingly turn into the rule of bureaucracy through the many laws and regulations passed in “the illusion that equality and liberty will be better safeguarded thereby.” In support of these views Le Bon cited Herbert Spencer’s book The Man versus the State (1884). Spencer was a contemporary scientific authority who had taken a strongly conservative turn. Spencer, too, had chosen the perverse effect as a leitmotif, particularly in the essay titled “The Sins of Legislators,” where he put forward an extravagantly general formulation: “Uninstructed legislators have in past times continually increased human suffering in their endeavours to mitigate it.”

Once again, then, a group of social analysts derided those who aspired to change the world for the better. And it was not enough for them to show that these naive dogooders fell flat on their face; they sought to prove that the do-gooders’ efforts actually left the world in worse shape. Moreover, they insisted that the worsening occurred along the very dimension where improvement had been intended.

“The Arch-Creator of Distress”

THE THESIS OF THE PERVERSE EFFECT WAS TO achieve special prominence during the third reactionary phase, to which I now turn: the presentday assault on the social and economic policies that make up the modern welfare state.

In economics, more than in the other social and political sciences, the perverseeffect theory is closely tied to a central tenet of the discipline: the idea of a selfregulating market. To the extent that this idea is dominant, any public policy aimed at changing market outcomes, such as prices or wages, automatically becomes noxious interference with beneficent equilibrating processes. Even economists who favor some measures of income and wealth redistribution tend to regard the most obvious “populist” priceor wage-policy measures as counterproductive. The perverse effect of specific interferences—a decree setting a maximum price for bread, or a minimum-wage law—has often been argued by tracing the supply-anddemand reactions to such measures. For example, as a result of a price ceiling for bread, flour will be diverted to other uses and some bread will be sold at black-market prices, so that the average price of bread may go up rather than down. Similarly, after a minimum wage is imposed, less labor w ill be hired, so that the income of workers may fall rather than rise.

There is actually nothing certain about such perverse effects. In the case of minimum-wage legislation, in particular, it is conceivable that the underlying supply-anddemand curves for labor could shift as a result and that the officially imposed increase in wages could have a positive effect on labor productivity and consequently on employment. But the mere possibility of demonstrating a perverse outcome as the first-order effect of interference makes for a powerful debating point that is bound to be brought up in any polemic.

The long public debate about social assistance to the poor provides ample illustration. Such assistance is admittedly rank interference with “market outcomes” that assign some members of society to the bottom of the income scale. The economic argument that perverse effects will ensue was first put forward during debates about the poor laws in England. The critics of these laws, from Defoe to Burke, from Malthus to Tocqueville, scoffed at the notion that the poor laws were merely a “safety net”—to use a modern term—for those who had fallen behind, through no fault of their own, in the race to earn a livelihood. Given the human “proclivity to idleness” (Mandeville’s phrase), this “naive” view neglected the supply reactions, the incentives built into the arrangement: the availability of the assistance, it was argued, acted as a positive encouragement to “sloth” and ‟depravity,” and thus produced poverty instead of relieving it. Here is a typical formulation of this point, by an early-nineteenth-century English essayist:

The Poor-laws were intended to prevent mendicants; they have made mendicancy a legal profession; they were established in the spirit of a noble and sublime provision, which contained all the theory of Virtue; they have produced all the consequences of Vice. . . . The Poor-laws, formed to relieve the distressed, have been the arch-creator of distress.

A century and a half later, in the most highly publicized attack on the welfare state in the United States, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984), one reads:

We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.

Except for a slight toning down of nineteenth-century coloratura, the music is exactly the same. The perverse effect would seem to work unremittingly under both early and late capitalism.

Not that the ideological scene has remained unchanged throughout these hundred and fifty years. The success of Murray’s book in fact owes much to the rather fresh look of its principal point, epitomized in its title—almost any idea that has been out of view for a long time has a good chance of being mistaken for an original insight. What actually happened is that the idea went into hiding, for reasons that are of some interest to our story.

As Karl Polanyi showed memorably in The Great Transformation (1944), the English poor laws, especially as supplemented and reinforced by the Speenhamland Act of 1795, represented a last-ditch attempt to rein in, through public assistance, the free market for labor, and to ameliorate its effects on the poorest strata of society. By supplementing low wages, particularly in agriculture, the new scheme helped to ensure social peace and to sustain domestic food production during the age of the Napoleonic Wars.

But once the emergency was over, the scheme came under strong attack. Fueled by belief in the new politicaleconomy “laws† of Bentham, Malthus, and Ricardo, the reaction against the Speenhamland arrangements became so powerful that in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act (or “New Poor Law”) fashioned the workhouse into the primary instrument of social assistance. Workhouse assistance was now organized so as to do away once and for all with any conceivable perverse effect. What public assistance there was stigmatized those who used it by (in the words of a contemporary observer)

imprisoning [them] in workhouses, compelling them to wear special garb, separating them from their families, cutting them off from communication with the poor outside, and, when they died, permitting their bodies to be disposed of for dissection.

It was not long before this new regime aroused, in turn, the most violent criticism across a wide political and social spectrum. A particularly powerful and influential indictment was Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, published in 1837-1838. A strong opposition movement arose, complete with demonstrations and riots, during the decade following enactment, and as a result the provisions of the law were not fully applied. The experience with the New Poor Law was so searing that the argument that had presided over its adoption—essentially, a claim that social-welfare assistance had a perverse effect—remained discredited for a long time.

Eventually the argument reappeared, however, though not at first in its crude form. Rather, it would seem that to be reintroduced into polite company, the old-fashioned perverse effect needed some new, sophisticated attire. One of the early general attacks on social-welfare policy in this country, which had the intriguing title ‟Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems,” was published in 1971 by Jay W. Forrester, a pioneer in the simulation of social processes with computer models. The article is a good example of what the French call intellectual terrorism. At the outset the reader is told that he or she has a very poor chance of understanding how society works, since we are dealing with “complex and highly interacting systems,” with social arrangements that “belong to the class called multi-loop non-linear feedback systems” and similar arcane “system dynamics” that ‟the human mind is not adapted to interpreting.” Only the highly trained computer specialist can unravel these mysteries—and what revelations does he come up with? “At times programs cause exactly the reverse of desired results.” Joseph de Maistre’s vengeful Providence has returned in the guise of “multiloop non-linear feedback systems.”

In an influential article also written in 1971, titled “The Limits of Social Policy,” Nathan Glazer joined Forrester in invoking the perverse effect, proclaiming, “Our efforts to deal with distress themselves increase distress.” Glazer did not employ computer models but spelled out some plain sociological reasons. Welfare-state policies, he argued, are meant to deal with distress that used to be dealt with by traditional structures such as the family, the church, and the local community. As these structures break down, the state comes in to take over their functions. In the process, the state further weakens what remains of the traditional structures. Hence the situation gets worse rather than better.

But Glazer’s reasoning was too softly sociological for the harder, conservative mood that became fashionable during the 1980s. Charles Murray’s formulation of the perverse effect of social-welfare policy returned to the blunt reasoning of the proponents of poor-law reform in early-nineteenth-century England. Inspired, like them, by the simplest economic verities, he argued that public assistance to the poor, as available in the United States, acts as an irresistible incentive to those working or potentially working for low wages (his famous “Harold” and “Phyllis”) to flock to the welfare rolls and to stay there—to become forever “trapped” in sloth and poverty.

Does Everything Backfire?

JUST AS EARLIER I HAVE NOT CONTROVER TED BURKE OR Le Bon, it is not my purpose here to discuss the substance of the various arguments against social-welfare policy in the United States and elsewhere. What I have tried to show is that the protagonists of this reactionary episode, like those of the earlier ones, have been powerfully attracted time and again by the same form of reasoning—that is, the claim of the perverse effect. In closing, I nevertheless wish to give some quite general reasons why the perverse effect is unlikely to exist in nature to anything like the extent that is claimed.

One of the great insights of the science of societyfound already in Vico and Mandeville and elaborated magisterially during the Scottish Enlightenment—is that because of imperfect foresight, human actions are apt to have unintended consequences of considerable scope. The perverse effect is a special and extreme case of the unintended consequence. Here the failure of foresight of the ordinary human actors is well-nigh total, because their actions are shown to produce precisely the opposite of the result intended; the social scientists analyzing the perverse effect, however, experience a great feeling of superiority - and revel in it. Maistre naively said as much when he exclaimed in his gruesome chapter on the prevalence of war in human history: “It is sweet to fathom the design of the Godhead in the midst of general cataclysm.

But the self-flattery of this situation should put the analysts of the perverse effect, as well as the rest of us, on guard: could they be embracing the effect for the express purpose of feeling good about themselves? In any event, are they not suffering from an attack of hubris when they portray ordinary human beings as wholly groping in the dark, while in contrast they make themselves look so remarkably perspicacious? And, finally, are they not rendering their task too easy by focusing on just one privileged and simplistic outcome of a program or a policy—the opposite of the intended one? For it can be argued that the perverse effect, which appears to be a mere variant of the concept of unintended consequences, is in one important respect its denial and even its betrayal. The concept of unintended consequences originally introduced uncertainty and open-endedness into social thought, but the exponents of the perverse effect retreat into viewing the social universe as wholly predictable by means of a rather transparent maneuver.

There is no denying, to be sure, that the perverse effect does show up here and there. By intimating that it is likely to be invoked for reasons that have little to do with its relevance, I have merely intended to raise some doubts about whether it occurs with the frequency that is claimed. Indeed, the perverse effect is by no means the only conceivable variety of unintended consequences or side effects.

In the first place, as Adam Smith and Goethe tried to teach us, there are unintended consequences and side effects of human actions that are welcome. But we rarely pay much attention to them, because they do not pose urgent problems to be addressed. Second, there are actions, policies, and inventions that have no unintended consequences, welcome or otherwise. These situations, similarly, tend to be neglected entirely. Finally, there are situations where secondary or side effects detract from the intended effect of some purposeful action. Here we are getting closer to the perverse case. But typically some positive benefit survives the onslaught of the negative side effect. There is, in fact, something intrinsically plausible about this type of outcome and something correspondingly implausible about the perverse effect as a frequent occurrence. This is so at least to the extent that policy-making is a repetitive, incremental activity: yesterday’s experiences are continually incorporated into today’s decisions, so that tendencies toward perversity stand a good chance of being detected and corrected.

I HOPE I WILL HAVE CONVINCED THE READER THAT IT was worthwhile to trace the thesis of the perverse effect through the debates of the past two hundred years, if only to marvel at certain constants in argument and rhetoric—just as Flaubert liked to marvel at the constant betise of his contemporaries. To see how the participants in these debates lumber predictably through their paces may even have some practical value. On the one hand, it may incline advocates of reactionary causes to plead their case with greater originality, sophistication, and restraint. And on the other hand, it may help reformers and sundry progressives: thev are here given notice of the kinds of arguments and objections that are most likely to be raised against their programs.