Thursday, October 22, 2009

Phony Contrarianism, Reactionary Agenda

Interesting essay on the Economist website Contrarianism's end? | Democracy in America |

Makes the point that what is called contrarianism is usually reactionary, and provides comfort and cover for the entrenched and powerful.

Cover of Cover via Amazon

Contrarianism generally lines up with the 'perversity' column in Albert Hirschman's typology 'The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy'. Here's the thing: as history progresses, things change. And societies try to adapt to those changes. Experts come up with solutions to the problems the societies face. Those solutions often entail discomfiting established interest groups. And the solutions the experts come up with almost always entail some degree of perverse counterreaction, some kinds of problems or inefficiencies or whatever. It can be very interesting to focus on those counterreactions; it can generate fascinating, eye-grabbing journalism. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the counterreactions aren't as big as the first-order effects of the solutions. The minimum wage may price a few people out of the labour market, but it mostly raises low-income people's wages. Raising marginal income taxes does slightly lower rich people's incentives to generate income, but it mostly raises government revenue. In other words, the little contrarian thing is almost never anywhere near as important as the big first-order thing it rides on. And as journalism has come increasingly to focus on contrarianism, it has become less and less adept at actually describing the world.

There was a time when I encountered contrarian arguments like those made by Mr Levitt and Mr Dubner and thought, hm, that's really cool. In recent years, when I encounter such arguments, my tendency has been to think, yeah, that's probably a lot of hooey. If journalism is about to affect a turn away from contrarianism, it's none too soon.

The web lets previously marginalized voices of considered compromise to be heard. So phony contrarianists can be called out.

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