choices with consequences…

…or, reactivity in political history.

Forgive me if this is a rather rambling post; it combines two threads of interests that came together for me recently. The two threads are (1) my interest in time and temporality in American politics; and (2) a recent talk I gave on civil discourse. I’ll take each in turn, then make a stab at a punch line.

In my research on the mobilization of time and temporality in recent American electoral crises, one recurrent theme was the deployment of the trope “the people” as a collective noun. Certainly Jefferson, Hamilton, and other Founders deployed “the people” in the Federalist discussions, the debate over the constitution itself, and in later speeches, but as many have pointed out, “the people” means something very different (white, male, property-owner, etc.) from what it has come to mean in early-21st-century America. But, perhaps like Weber’s “calling,” the reliance on the term “the People” in the Constitution and Federalism enables (note, I am not claiming that it necessitates, only enables) future reform movements to argue that they are perfecting, not amending, Constitutional principles. So the Constitution thus creates “the people,” not just for the moment of its writing but for future generations in which political life reacts to the constraints and resources provided therein.

The second stream comes from a talk I gave for the inauguration of the new president of my alma mater. I shared the stage with two very interesting others: Christopher Edley and Will Saletan. In preparation, I read Will’s book (I liked it so much that I’ve assigned it for my first-year seminar this fall). A central tenet of the book is that the tactics the pro-choice movement used to defend abortion rights, particularly in southern states (Virginia and Arkansas, for example) foreclosed future expansive arguments about abortion. That is, the “pro-choice” framing, essentially a libertarian approach, was adopted defensively during the 1970s and 1980s. This set of decisions (“choices have consequences,” writes Saletan in a nice double entendre) set the politics of abortion off in a direction that was essentially conservative, that is, avoiding large-scale claims about women’s rights or transformations of gender. Most interestingly, and here’s the connection with the constitutional stuff above, it set this direction virtually entirely without this being the intention or even the preference of the people who made the choices.

So, my attempt at a punch-line. There’s a long history, of course, of the idea of unintended consequences. But in general I think these are discussed as a sort of blowback: not just unintended, but in opposition to the intention of the actor. The two cases I’ve outlined here, if I’m right, are cases where unintentional consequences remain the consequence of purposive action; their effects outlast the material reasons for which actors conceived that purposive action; and while they are certainly unintended, they are not diametrically opposed to those reasons and purposes. Rather, they represent the constraints and resources placed on future action by prior actions.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

4 thoughts on “choices with consequences…”

  1. “the constraints and resources placed on future action by prior actions.”

    The more apt term here is path dependence rather than unintended consequences, no?


    1. I hadn’t thought of that connection, thanks. But I think what I’m talking about is also distinct from path dependence, since the consequences I’m interested in are not (necessarily) the extension of the original decision but instantiated by those decisions.


  2. I think it might be useful to collate this analysis with a larger idea of possibility space. Intentions are enabled in some dimensions and constrained in some others – some things are possible and some aren’t, prior to and independent of the decider. Of course this means some ‘choices’ aren’t choices at all, but even when real choices are made it’s from a limited menu of options. Then path dependence kicks in and each choice restructures the effective possibility space for future decisions, as you say, in a dialectic of enablement and constraint. So choosing the Italian restaurant forecloses the sushi options, and ordering the fish narrows the wine list to the whites, but whether there’s a sushi restaurant in town, what exactly the Italian chef has on the menu and how big the wine list is are part of a space of possibilities that’s not in the decider’s immediate control, although tasty nutrition is accomplished.


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