The title of this book is quite apt. Essentially it is a sustained scholarly based polemic; that is, it uses scholarly technique to mount an argument leading to a set of derived principles of practical guidance for political leaders, particularly in underdeveloped countries. The principles are derived to answer the question of how best to alleviate poverty by altering in a progressive way existing patterns of income distribution. For Ascher the best way is a reformist strategy in which leaders systematically scheme to manipulate a variety of strategic and tactical variables common to all such contexts.
In mounting his argument, Ascher uses the technique of conceptually focused analysis over time of three Latin American cases: Argentina, Peru, and Chile. The analysis itself is based on an interpretative reading of selected secondary sources dealing with the three cases. The time frame is the post–World War II period, which he breaks down conceptually into three types of regimes that followed different strategies for attempting to redistribute in the favor of lower income groups: Authoritarian Populists, Democratic Reformists, and the Radicals.
Ascher then employs the comparative method to probe and delineate in each category approaches that gained at least some success and those that resulted in failure. From this comparative analysis, then, positive and negative principles of action are drawn, first, for all three cases in each specific regime category and, then, as a set of general principles summing the experiences.
A concluding chapter lays out the principles along a set of manipulable variables like: instruments, presentation, support, opposition, linkage, timing, and so forth. The conclusion, as I said, is for a reform-mongering strategy, but unlike other would-be reform theorists, Ascher argues for the need to focus less on mobilizing support than on strategies that circumvent or neutralize opposition.
On the face of it, this is a book that could well provoke some lively debate and counterpolemics. Also, many may well question Ascher’s approach and methodology. Such a debate, if carried out in the same spirit of scholarly polemic that frames this work, could well prove most useful to all those who share either a scholarly or active interest in these questions within the Latin American context; for, the work itself is well focused and sets out in systematic fashion a strong and well-maintained argument. In sum, it is a substantial piece of work that demands serious attention.