The Virtual Bookshelf: 'Invoking the Invisible Hand'

Robert Asen, Invoking the Invisible Hand: Social Security and the Privatization Debates (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009).

VB: Asen HeadshotRobert Asen’s Invoking the Invisible Hand examines the rhetoric hiding beneath the debates over Social Security through careful scrutiny of contemporary debates over proposals to privatize this federal program. Asen argues that a rights-based rhetoric employed by Social Security's original supporters enabled advocates of privatization to align their proposals with the widely held belief that Social Security functions simply as a return on a worker's contributions and that it is not, in fact, a social insurance program. By analyzing major debates over a preeminent American institution, Asen reveals the ways in which language is deployed to identify problems for public policy, craft policy solutions, and promote policies to the populace. He shows how debate participants seek to create favorable contexts for their preferred policies and how they connect those policies to idealized images of the nation.  

VB: Social SecurityInvoking the Invisible Hand is a “rich and compelling work,” writes Melanie Loehwing in Rhetoric & Public Affairs. “The careful research, provocative analysis, and thoughtful insights Asen offers throughout the book distinguish it as an invaluable resource for scholars of public policy rhetorics,” Loehwing concludes. Internet Bookwatch said of Asen’s book: “Revealing the manner in which debate participants tend to manipulate language and perception to favor their side, Invoking the Invisible Hand is strongly recommended not only to college libraries, but also anyone involved in the Social Security debate, the better to fully understand all sides of the issue, and the fine details that advocates on each side tend to leave out.”

In 2010, Asen received the NCA Winans-Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address, and the Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award from the NCA Public Address Division. And in 2011, Invoking the Invisible Hand received the Kohrs-Campbell Prize in Rhetorical Criticism, one of the largest awards ever established to sustain and advance the study of rhetoric in American higher education.

Robert Asen is Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to Invoking the Invisible Hand, Asen is the author of Visions of Poverty: Welfare Policy and Political Imagination (Michigan State University Press, 2002) and the co-editor of Public Modalities (University of Alabama Press, 2010) and Counterpublics and the State (SUNY Press, 2001).

Book site: 

Watch Asen discussing the Occupy! movement here: