Exit, Albert Hirschman, one of the greats

I couldn’t help the play on his most famous title.

Albert Hirschman died yesterday at the age of 91. What a pleasant age, for a man whom, when I did chance to see him at conferences, struck me as very pleasant indeed. A wanderer myself in academic topics, he was one of my role models, his books meandering between institutional, development, and monetary economics and political economy. His most famous work is Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which I believe appeared in 1970. The idea behind the book: when organizations begin to change in ways that members don’t like, they can can leave (exit), resist the changes (voice), or they can stay (loyalty).

My favorite is National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade, a book that nobody seems to talk about anymore. I read it when very young–when I was in my 20s–a professor of mine mentioned it–Dierdre McCloskey, who taught our economic history class roughly 100 years ago at the University of Iowa. Hirschman’s in National Power traced how the Nazis used their military strength to structure trade with its partners. It’s a short book–only about 200 pages or so–and it was published in 1945. No matter. In the early 1990s as a student of economics, the book struck me as remarkably contemporary, and ever since I’ve had the the book’s argument echo again and again with Saddam Hussein, post-socialist transitions, and my own country’s often confused reactions to those. The book’s brevity was a testimony to Hirschman’s capacity for language. He was among the best writers in economics.

After reading that book, I went on a bit of Hirschman binge, reading Exit and others. One book and one article really stand out of his wonderful corpus. The book was The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, and Jeopardy. This book looks at reactionary conservative thought response to successive waves of full court press progressivism: the French Revolution, the expansion of voting rights, and the development of the 20th century welfare state. From the writings on these subjects, he identifies three tropes as attitudes that reactionaries employ in response. Perversity tropes say that the policy/development will make the issue worse. Futility tropes imply that whatever the policy is, it’s a waste of resources because you can’t change the status quo. Jeopardy tropes say that the investment in the new way doing things will destroy or damage the existing good things we have. He makes a stab at discussing the progressive tropes–probably at the insistence of some annoying reviewer–but that chapter is less effective, as it is less well-researched. Still, a book I would have killed to have written, for all the errors and flaws in it.

Rajiv Sethi has a written up a lovely remembrance as well.