An Original Thinker of Our Time

Katia Salomon
Albert Hirschman visiting his son-in-law Alain Salomon’s architectural project to develop a small park for children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1971

Albert Hirschman, who died late last year, was one of the most interesting and unusual thinkers of the last century. An anti-utopian reformer with a keen eye for detail, Hirschman insisted on the complexity of social life and human nature. He opposed intransigence in all its forms. He believed that political and economic possibilities could be found in the most surprising places.

Hirschman is principally known for four remarkable books. The most influential, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), explores two ways to respond to unjust, exasperating, or inefficient organizations and relationships. You can leave (“exit”) or you can complain (“voice”). If you are loyal, you will not exit, and you may or may not speak out. The Passions and the Interests (1977) uncovers a long-lost argument for capitalism in general and commercial interactions in particular. The argument is that trade softens social passions and enmities, ensuring that people see one another not as members of competing tribes, but as potential trading partners. Shifting Involvements (1982) investigates the dramatically different attractions of political engagement and private life, and shows how the disappointments of one can lead to heightened interest in the other. For example, the protest movements of the 1960s were inspired, at least in part, by widespread disappointment with the experience of wealth-seeking and consumption, emphasized in the 1950s.

Finally, The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991) is a study of the reactionary’s tool kit, identifying the standard objections to any and all proposals for reform. The objections are “perversity” (the reform will make the problem even worse), “futility” (the reform will do nothing to solve the problem), and “jeopardy” (the reform will endanger some hard-won social gain). Hirschman shows that these objections are stupefying, mechanical, hyperbolic, and often wrong. In 1845, for example, the historian Jacob Burkhardt deplored the rise of democracy and the expansion of the right to vote on the ground that he did not “expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will mean the end of history.”

Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world. It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His categories become your categories. A lot of moderate Republicans are disenchanted with the Republican Party. Do they “exit” or do they use their “voice” to try to change the party? In much of the world, nations and regions are now riven by religious and ethnic tensions. Should they emphasize how much their citizens can gain through trading with one another? If people are willing to buy your product, you might not care which god they worship. The Arab Spring saw an extraordinary outburst in political engagement. Is disappointment with the early results shifting people’s involvement toward the private sphere?

The current debate over gun control is a case study in “the rhetoric…

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