Albert Hirschman, 1915-2012

Albert Hirschman died on Monday. He was one of the most creative and broad-ranging development economists of the past fifty years.

His early work at Harvard was fairly technical, but he’ll be remembered for his later explorations of ideology and the evolution of ideas. He is best known for asking why bad situations, especially in developing economies, and bad ideas, here in the US, persist. His later writing is intellectually lively, discursive and often rooted in historical examples.

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is his most famous book, and it deserves to be read much more widely. It has important ideas about how to influence change. Economists usually assume that exiting (leaving a bad situation) is the way to signal dissatisfaction and create incentives for change. But Hirschman asks whether that’s always the best route to prod productive change. He gives examples of ways that exiting can undermine constructive criticism and deplete the resources needed to fix problems from within. But Hirschman also explores self-deception—times when we convince ourselves that we’ll have the most influence fixing dysfunctional conditions by working from within the system when instead we might have more influence by quitting on principle, or making a stink. In that way I’ve felt Hirschman's influence as strongly in personal decisions as in professional inquiry.

His book Rhetoric of Reaction feels slight next to Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. But it’s the work that has been most helpful to me in thinking about the ideology of microfinance. Rhetoric of Reaction explores Reagan-era arguments against strong governments. He describes three kinds of arguments:

  • Jeopardy – that big government will jeopardize gains made elsewhere in society;
  • Perversity – That big government may have good intentions but can end up doing more harm than good (say if welfare programs perpetuate dependence); and
  • Futility – that the problems that government takes on are too big to solve, and that the efforts will ultimately add up to too little.

Those same kinds of arguments were deployed against subsidies for microcredit, at about the same time (the mid 1980s and early 1990s).

I happened to be thinking about Albert Hirschman a week before he died. I was reading an anthropology article to try to better understand how anthropologists use the concept of “precarity” (a catch-all for the tenuousness and unpredictability which emerges in a world with insecure jobs, few benefits, and weak safety nets). Something in that reminded me of a talk I heard Hirschman give during college. I don’t remember anything of the talk, but I remember a conversation afterward. I was a senior, trying to figure out what a plausible career might look like, and after the talk I slipped into a reception for faculty and students in development studies. I asked Hirschman about his approach to interdisciplinary work. He paused for a moment and said simply, “The best interdisciplinary work goes on under one roof.” Then he tapped his cranium.

I took that to mean that ultimately you should try to read and absorb other disciplines on your own, and not think that intellectual border-crossing can be done by creating teams of people who come from different sides of the borders. That advice is a lot easier to follow if, like Hirschman, you possess one of the great intellects in the social sciences. I don’t, but Hirschman’s prod nonetheless pushed me to regularly read in anthropology and sociology and a little in philosophy, even though I know I don’t get all of what I’m reading.

A few years ago, I had lunch with Eric Maskin, who was then a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Maskin was hired to fill the position vacated when Hirschman retired from the Institute, and after lunch Maskin and I stopped in to say hello to Hirschman. Hirschman had recently had a stroke which diminished his sharpness, but he was still coming into the office and was still eager to discuss ideas. The stroke’s effects were clear, and the conversation was friendly but awkward.  Still, there in his office, surrounded by Hirschman’s books and paintings, I was reminded of the very important insights generated under his roof .