Sunday, March 24, 2013

Albert Hirschman and the Happiness of Pursuit

The following is the text of my remarks at a gathering in memory of Albert Hirschman, held earlier today at the Institute for Advanced Study. The event included moving recollections from members of his family, as well as tributes by Joan Scott, Jeremy Adelman, Michael Walzer, Amartya Sen, Annie Cot, Wolf Lepenies, William Sewell, James Wolfensohn, and Robbert Dijkgraaf. Fernando Henrique Cardoso could not attend but sent written remarks that were read out by Adelman. I'll update this post with links to the text or video of other speeches should any become available.


It’s an enormous privilege to have been invited to speak at this event in memory of Albert Hirschman. Unlike most of the other speakers here, I knew Albert only from a distance, based largely on his books and interviews. I met him in person just once, though I was fortunate enough to get to know Sarah a little during my year at the Institute.

Since my connection to Albert was largely through his writing, I’d like to speak about his love of language, his gift for expression, and his approach to the written word. To Albert, words were not merely vehicles for the transmission of ideas—they were objects to be played with and molded into structures in which one could perpetually take delight.

In 1993 Albert gave an interview to a group of Italian writers, which he later translated into English and published under the title Crossing Boundaries. I’d like to quote a segment of that interview that sums up very nicely both his playful relationship with language and the great originality of his ideas. This is what he said:
I enjoy playing with words, inventing new expressions. I believe there is much more wisdom in words than we normally assume.... Here is an example.  
One of my recent antagonists, Mancur Olson, uses the expression "logic of collective action" in order to demonstrate the illogic of collective action, that is, the virtual unlikelihood that collective action can ever happen. At some point I was thinking about the fundamental rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and that beautiful expression of American freedom as "the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."I noted how, in addition to the pursuit of happiness, one might also underline the importance of the happiness of pursuit, which is precisely the felicity of taking part in collective action. I simply was happy when that play on words occurred to me.
This idea of the happiness of pursuit, the pleasure that one takes in collective action, was to be a central theme in his masterpiece Exit, Voice and Loyalty, published in 1970. Two centuries earlier, Adam Smith had spoken of our propensity to "truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another." Albert Hirschman spoke instead of a propensity to protest, complain, and generally "kick up a fuss." This articulation of discontent he called Voice.

Albert believed that voice was an important factor in arresting and reversing decline in firms, organizations, and states. Economists to that point had focused on a very different mechanism, namely desertion or exit, and had argued that greater competition, in the form of greater ease of exit, was a beneficial force in maintaining high levels of organizational performance.

Albert pointed out that there was a trade-off between exit and voice; that greater ease of exit could result in a stifling of voice as the individuals most inclined to protest and complain chose to depart instead. He also observed that loyalty, provided that it was not completely blind and uncritical, could serve to delay exit and thus create the space for voice to do its work.

What Albert did in Exit, Voice and Loyalty was nothing less than to reunite two disciplines, economics and political science, which had once been closely entwined but had drifted far apart over time. And he did this not by exporting the methods of economics to the analysis of politics, as others had done, but by emphasizing the importance of political activity within the economic sphere.

This kind of interdisciplinarity permeated all of Albert’s work. He described the idea of trespassing as "basic to his thinking." Crossing boundaries came naturally to him; he was too restless and playful to be confined to a single discipline. He was also an intellectual rebel, eager to question conventional wisdom whenever he found it wanting. In fact, he did so even when the conventional wisdom had been established by his own prior work. He referred to this as a propensity to self-subversion, which he called a "permanent trait of his intellectual personality."

I recall vividly and fondly my very first contact with Albert’s work. I had just begun graduate school, having never previously studied economics, and found myself in a course on the History of Economic Thought with the legendary Robert Heilbroner. It was Heilbroner’s book The Worldly Philosophers that had steered me to economics in the first place. And there on his syllabus, alongside Smith and Ricardo and Malthus, was Albert’s book The Passions and the Interests.

I recently went back and read this extraordinary book for a second time. The twentieth anniversary edition has a foreword by Amartya Sen, who considers it to be "among the finest" of Albert’s writings. Albert himself, in the preface to this edition, notes that it’s the one book that never fell victim to his propensity to self-subversion.

There’s a memorable passage in the book where Albert discusses Adam Smith’s claim that "order and good government" came to England as the unintended consequence of a growing taste for manufactured luxuries among the feudal elite. They "bartered their whole power and authority," says Smith, for the "gratification of… vanities… for trinkets and baubles, better fit to be the playthings of children than the serious pursuits of man." Having squandered their wealth in this manner, they could no longer support their vast armies of retainers, and became incapable of "disturbing the peace" or "interrupting the regular execution of justice."

But Albert was skeptical that the feudal lords had been quite so blind to their long-term interests. He felt that Smith, always eager to uncover the unintended effects of human action, had overreached this time. And he expressed this thought as follows:
One cannot help feeling that in this particular instance, Smith overplayed his Invisible Hand.
I can just imagine the smile that spread across Albert’s face when he came up with that turn of phrase.

Albert’s work was expansive and visionary, bold and audacious, breathtakingly original and creative. But most of all, it was playful and gently irreverent. He demonstrated to us, by his own example, the happiness of intellectual pursuit. For that, more than anything else, I’ll always be grateful.