Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Self-Subversion of Albert Hirschman

Albert Hirschman is 96 years old today.

A year ago I marked the occasion with a post on Exit, Voice and Loyalty, a masterpiece full of deep and original insights into the mechanisms that can restore performance in failing organizations and states. This work continues to shed light on events of enormous contemporary importance, from the effects of forced migration to the maintenance of good governance.

This year, I'd like to focus instead on a little-known interview that Hirschman gave to a trio of Italian writers in 1993. The interview was translated into English by Hirschman himself a few years later and published (with minor revisions) in a slim volume called Crossing Boundaries. It covers his early life in a turbulent Europe, his escape to the United States, his work on the economic development of Latin America, and his thoughts on methodology and language.

Interesting lives make for interesting ideas, and Hirschman's is a case in point. Born to a German family of Jewish origin in 1915, he was baptized (but never confirmed) as a Protestant. His education was in French and German, though he would later become fluent in Italian, and eventually in Spanish and English. By the age of sixteen he had joined the youth movement of the Social Democratic Party. Through his sister Ursula (who was a major influence on his life and thought) he met Eugenio Colorni, whose Berlin hotel room was used for the production of anti-fascist pamphlets and fliers. Ursula would later marry Colorni, and one of their daughters, Eva, would go on to become an economist in her own right and marry Amartya Sen. (Eva's untimely death and her influence on Sen's thought is acknowledged in the touching leading footnote of this paper.)

Hirschman watched the rise of Hitler with increasing alarm, and fled Berlin for Paris alone at the age of 18 just a couple of months after the Reichstag fire. Over the course of the next few years he would live in France, England, Spain, and Italy. He spent a year at the London School of Economics in 1935-36, taking courses with Robbins and Hayek, but finding greater intellectual affinity with a younger group of economists among whom was Abba Lerner.

When war broke out in 1939 he joined the French Army and, for fear of being shot as a traitor by approaching German forces, was compelled to adopt a new identity as a Frenchman, Albert Hermant. By 1941 he had migrated to the United States, where he met and married Sarah Hirschman. (They have now been married for seventy years.) He joined the US Army in 1943, and found himself back in Italy as part of the war effort soon thereafter.

At the end of the war Hirschman returned to the US and was involved with the development of the Marshall plan. He subsequently spent four years in Bogota, first as an adviser to the government on development policy, and then as a private economic consultant. After a sequence of appointments at Yale, Stanford, Columbia and Harvard, he moved to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where he and Sarah remain. 

As far as methodology is concerned, Hirschman expresses "a dislike for too unilateral and uniform diagnoses," preferring instead to imagine the unexpected:
I have always had a certain dislike for general principles and abstract prescriptions. I think it is necessary to have an "empirical lantern" or a "visit with the patient" before being able to understand what is wrong with him. It is crucial to understand the peculiarity, the specificity, and also the unusual aspects of the case.
I know well that the social world is most variable, in continuous change, that there are no permanent laws. Unexpected events constantly happen, new causality relations are being installed... with age one's new ideas are predominantly those that contradict the old.
Self-subversion has been a permanent trait of my intellectual personality...
I also feel the need to engage from time to time in abstract theory. This means that I am not totally "anti-theoretical," that I am not totally opposed to parsimony, nor totally in favor of complexity. Some of my ideas are essentially theories of economic development, on the importance of unbalanced growth, for example; the "exit/voice" schema may also derive from a new way of looking at social reality... The success of a theory consists precisely in that suddenly everyone begins to reason according to the new categories.
The idea of trespassing is basic to my thinking... Attempts to confine me to a specific area make me unhappy. When it seems that an idea can be verified in another field, then I am happy to venture in this direction...
I have always been against that methodology of certain social scientists... who study what has happened in some fifty or so countries and then proceed to draw deductions from there on what is likely to happen in the future. Of course, they find themselves without instruments in the face of "important exceptions," such as the case of Hitler in Germany. This is the reason that I have always disliked certain types of social research. I am always more interested in widening the area of the possible, of what may happen, rather than in prediction, on the basis of statistical reasoning, of what will actually happen. The inquiry into the statistical probability that certain social events will actually take place interests me little... I have always found that when something good happens, it occurs as a result of a conjunction of extraordinary circumstances... I am simply not much interested in forecasts; they are not part of my theoretical impulses.
Hirschman has always enjoyed playing with language, taking words with negative connotations and endowing them with fresh and positive meanings. Trespassing, subversion, bias, and doubt all start to carry strangely bright associations in his writing. But for Hirschman this act of appropriation is not simply a source of joy; it can also generate genuine insight:
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.
Hirschman's love of words led him to invent a number of palindromes over the course of his life. Some of these he collected together under the title Senile Lines, signed by Dr. Awkward, for his daughter Katya upon her graduation (both title and author are, of course, palindromes).

Reading this interview made me wonder whether graduate programs in economics place enough emphasis on facility of expression when screening students for admission. A high level of mathematical preparation can certainly ease one's passage through the required coursework. But it does not seem too far-fetched to conjecture that an appreciation for language and a gift for expression might be valuable inputs in the generation of interesting new ideas.


  1. Rajiv,

    You know well that economists are notorious for being among the most boring and incomprehensible of writers, although it was not always so. For better or worse, we shall not go back to that lost promised land of expressivity.

  2. Rajiv - excellent post. The way of thinking that Hirschman describes has been downgraded not only in academic departments but also in many corporations. In some sense, tacit knowledge and imagination is deemed less important than algorithmic knowledge. This philosophical divide goes back a long way but the fact that we have so much more data and computational power at our disposal probably makes the divide that much more dramatic. Chapter 4 of this book by David Ellerman on Hirschman's theory of unbalanced growth is not bad on this divide and Chapter 9 as well is excellent on some other thinkers who take a Hirschman-ian approach (Jane Jacobs, Burton Klein).

    Your post also reminded me of this article I read a while ago on how experimental ecologists like Robert Paine are a dying breed. Not quite the same thing but a similar theme, a presumption that data can substitute for experience on the ground.

  3. Barkley, for better or worse? Surely for worse. But blogs might be just the medium that allows for some balance to be restored. Somebody out there must want to write like Smith or Mill, don't you think? And the ideas contained in their writings can hardly be considered trivial.

    Ashwin, thanks. You found exactly the word I was looking for in writing this post: imagination. That describes Hirschman perfectly. If I can ever clear up the huge backlog of commitments that I seem to accumulate every so often, I'll read the pieces you mention. I appreciate the links.

  4. Rajiv,

    Of course it is for worse, or at least I think you know that is my view. At the same time, I am not one of those who is anti-math, far from it, as I think you well know.

    However, much as I would like to think that we all should be able to write well and take derivatives at the same time, it seems that for many there is a sharp tradeoff on that one.

  5. sorry i got to this so late

    but it is even later then you think

    i really want to "notice"
    this phrase in last years mr h post

    "free and competitive press"
    equals "voice"

    i find that nearly meaningless

    as is

    it reminds me of knee jerk pluralism the kind that waqcks away at hugo's experiment in social transformation
    and nagged ortega's post rev regime in the 80's well enough to take pressure off the contra gig


    does the us press qualify
    as free and competitive ???
    i guess it does if india's press

    obviously its hardly binary and global
    the state e can partition
    the universe of discourse
    producing zones of free speech
    and zones of controled speech

    your example of india i think fails to do sufficient
    "injstice " to
    the uncontested hegemonic aspects of federal india's notion of cross border interventionism
    in the context
    of a de facto sub continental
    pax hindustani

  6. Well, "nearly meaningless" is better than "utterly meaningless" I suppose.

    Here's what I said: "without a free and competitive press, the voice of public outrage will often remain muted." Seems quite uncontroversial to me.

    Voice is not a normative concept. It can be used in all kinds of ways, sometimes nefarious. It can be used to spread rumors and conspiracy theories, and malign the innocent. It can be manipulated by the state and private actors with power and influence. And yes, freedom to exercise voice is not binary and global. But on this spectrum I would say that both in India and the US lie on the side of more open expression. And it is thanks to this that the very well connected criminals discussed in my "public outrage" post were eventually brought to justice.