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An Original Thinker of Our Time

In 1956, possibilism struck home. He received an unexpected letter from the chair of Yale’s economics department, who asked him whether he might be willing to come to New Haven as a visiting research professor. He accepted immediately, and his academic career started in his forties.

In New Haven, he produced his second book, The Strategy of Economic Development, which attacked the prevailing wisdom in favor of “balanced growth” and top-down planning. He argued instead for providing economic support to industries with strong “linkages,” understood as economic relationships with others. If one sector is closely linked to others, its own development, however unbalanced, can spur additional development and promote growth. Hirschman showed that in underdeveloped countries, the iron and steel industry tends to have high linkages; for that reason, it makes sense for such countries to support that industry. He contended that development depends “on calling forth and enlisting for development purposes resources and abilities that are hidden, scattered, or badly utilized.” In Hirschman’s account, history had no single course and could not be planned.

As he completed The Strategy of Economic Development, his exhilaration was palpable. He wrote his sister that an old teacher had explained

that I shouldn’t worry about love—and she stretched out her arms and then slowly brought her two index fingers together from afar—as sure as that, she said, would the girl that I will love get together with me one day. As it may be, along the lines of the example I think that there exists for each of us a personal (and nevertheless general) truth, we only have to trace it and then follow it deliberately and courageously. And I just had these last months the exciting feeling that I am about to succeed in following my truth.

Though the book received favorable reviews (and was destined to become a classic), Hirschman’s visiting professorship had run out at Yale. But in relatively short order, Columbia offered him his first real academic appointment. The only problem was that he hated teaching (and seemed to have a phobia about it throughout his life). In 1963, he moved to Harvard. Influenced by the protest movements of the 1960s, and seeking to challenge the view that market competition was a cure-all, he wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which became an immediate sensation. As Adelman notes, the immense influence of the book stems in part from the familiarity and wide application of the master concepts. Faced with a difficult nation, employer, credit card company, religion, or personal relationship, does one leave, protest, or keep quiet? All of us have had to answer that question, and Hirschman offered a new set of categories with which to answer it.

Despising teaching as much as he loved writing, Hirschman longed to spend time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1971, he asked whether he could visit there for the following year. He was indeed invited and the move became permanent. At the institute, Hirschman became keenly interested in the origins of capitalism and embarked on the project that became The Passions and the Interests. In that work, he rejected the nostalgia, current at the time, for a supposedly lost world of republican virtue, free of commercial avarice. He also rejected the suggestion, prominent then and now in the economics profession, that markets simply take human beings as they are, with their inevitable self-interest.

Instead he observed that the early theorists of free markets thought that commerce would transform people, by cooling our passions and making us gentler. In the words of Samuel Ricard in 1704, commercial interactions would encourage citizens “to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action.” At the same time, however, Hirschman worried that efforts to focus people on economic gain could “have the side effect of killing the civic spirit and of thereby opening the door to tyranny.”

Hirschman’s thinking about the alternating ease and difficulty of getting people to participate in public life led him to Shifting Involvements—a small masterpiece that illuminates the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and protest movements of diverse kinds. Hirschman emphasized that human beings are often choosing between private and public life, and thus between the different forms of happiness that are associated with each of them. He described “pendular motions of collective behavior,” in which people swing from happiness to disappointment in one kind of activity, and then to the other. For example, the disappointments and frustrations of the student rebellions of the late 1960s encouraged a return to private life in the 1970s and 1980s. Rejecting the highly influential idea that the problem of collective action has a kind of invariable, ahistorical “logic,” Hirschman drew attention to the immense importance of history and timing as, in Adelman’s words, “people leave the streets and plazas disenchanted with politics to seek happiness in the shopping malls”—and vice versa.

The Rhetoric of Reaction, written in his mid-seventies, was an outgrowth of the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s, and it speaks directly to our current debates. Hirschman was struck by the routine, stylized, even mechanical character of much conservative thinking—and its close connection, in its rhetoric, to arguments that have been made for hundreds of years. Indeed, conservative rhetoric is the book’s target, perhaps above all in the person of Edmund Burke, who deplored the French Revolution and its emphasis on the rights of men, and who exclaimed, “Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!” But in a fascinating flip, the book ends with a demonstration that the left has its own, closely related rhetorical moves. Where conservatives argue that further reforms will jeopardize precious accomplishments, the left throws “caution to the wind, to disregard not only tradition but the whole concept of unintended consequences of human action,” and hence “progressives are forever ready to mold and remold society at will and have no doubt about their ability to control events.”

Commenting on this aspect of his project, Hirschman refers to the

sheer fun in pursuing my argument into this originally unexpected direction. As is well known, criticizing one’s friends is more demanding and therefore more interesting than to expose once again the boring errors of one’s adversaries. So there was some intellectual exhilaration in my exercise at self-subversion.

That exercise was intended to challenge intransigence on the part of both the right and the left—and to get people to listen to one another in a spirit of humility, rather than making their standard, mind-numbing rhetorical moves.

Hirschman was sharp and productive into his eighties, but his faculties started to fail him, and by 1997, he had lost the ability to write or read. Ultimately he withdrew entirely into himself. In Adelman’s words, he was forced “to gaze in silence from a wheelchair” while Sarah “comforted and accompanied an increasingly spectral husband through his decline.” In 2011, Sarah herself fell ill with cancer and notwithstanding “her determination to be there until his end, the cancer would not be stopped.” The morning after her death, their daughter Katia delivered the news. “Albert’s head jerked up and for a moment his body shook before settling back into his remove.”

Of his many books, Hirschman’s personal favorite was The Passions and the Interests. His explanation is illuminating:

It really was the fruit of free creation. I did not write it against anybody…. That book gave me prolonged pleasure: to write, feeling free to discover things without having to prove someone wrong. A very special case.

That special case has proved to be an enduring achievement, not only because of its eye-opening exploration of the softening power of commerce, but also because of its own gentle and capacious spirit. But if The Passions and the Interests was his favorite, and Exit, Voice, and Loyalty his most important, there can be no question about his most characteristic: The Rhetoric of Reaction. The sustained attack on intransigence, the bias in favor of hope, the delight in paradox, the insistence on the creative power of doubt—all these prove a lot of people wrong, not just Hamlet.

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