24 Sep 2012

Blocking change

From the New Yorker:
Two decades ago, the economist Albert O. Hirschman published a historical study of the opposition to basic social advances; “the rhetoric of intransigence,” as he put it. He examined the structure of arguments -— in the eighteenth century, against expansions of basic rights, such as freedom of speech, thought, and religion; in the nineteenth century, against widening the range of citizens who could vote and participate in government; and, in the twentieth century, against government-assured minimal levels of education, economic well-being, and security.

In each instance, the reforms aimed to address deep, pressing, and complex societal problems -- wicked problems, as we might call them [like health care today]. The reforms pursued straightforward goals but required inherently complicated, difficult-to-explain means of implementation. And, in each instance, Hirschman observed, reactionary argument took three basic forms: perversity, futility, and jeopardy.

The perversity thesis is that the change will not just fail but make the problem worse. The futility thesis is that the change can’t make a meaningful difference, and therefore won’t be worth the effort... The jeopardy thesis is that the change will impose unacceptable costs upon society -— that what we lose will be far more precious than what we gain.
Note that all these arguments rely on fear and uncertainty. They can be countered by using small pilots to demonstrate reforms or borrowing lessons from implementation of reforms in other places.