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An Original Thinker of Our Time

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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 of reaction.” Those who object to legal restrictions urge that far from decreasing the risk of violence, such restrictions will actually increase it. For Hirschman, this objection would be an example of “perversity.” Opponents also contend that if we want to save lives, gun control will have essentially no effect—the argument from futility. We can find precisely the same rhetorical gambits in countless other debates, including those over Obamacare, increases in the minimum wage, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage.

Hirschman, born in 1915 in Berlin, was an economist by training, and he spent a lot of time reading Adam Smith, but his great intellectual loves were Montaigne (with his advice to “observe, observe perpetually”) and Machiavelli. To support his points, Hirschman drew on Dante, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Chekhov, and Yeats. He had a keen interest in social psychology. Crossing Boundaries is the title of one of his books; another is called Essays in Trespassing.

Part of what made Hirschman distinctive, even unique, was his ability to develop large themes from sharp observations of particular practices, and thus to connect apparently unrelated social phenomena. It was an observation of the behavior of motorists in a tunnel in Boston—who honked with outrage when people in an adjacent lane started to move while their lane remained stuck—that helped him to develop a general theory of disappointment and indignation. He was also wry and mischievous. As he wrote in the preface to Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:

Having found my own unifying way of looking at issues as diverse as competition and the two-party system, divorce and the American character, black power and the failure of “unhappy” top officials to resign over Vietnam, I decided to let myself go a little.

As Jeremy Adelman shows in his astonishing and moving biography, Hirschman sought, in his early twenties and long before becoming a writer, to “prove Hamlet wrong.” In Shakespeare’s account, Hamlet is immobilized and defeated by doubt. Hirschman was a great believer in doubt—he never doubted it—and he certainly doubted his own convictions. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong? Who else would publish an essay in The American Economic Review exploring the “overproduction of opinionated opinion,” questioning the value of having strong opinions, and emphasizing the importance of doubting one’s opinions and even one’s tastes? Hirschman thought that strong opinions, as such, “might be dangerous to the health of our democracy,” because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been.

In seeking to prove Hamlet wrong, Hirschman was suggesting that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal. One of his last books, published when he was about eighty, is called A Propensity to Self-Subversion. In the title essay, Hirschman celebrates skepticism about his own theories and ideas, and he captures not only the insight but also the pleasure, even the joy, that can come from learning that one had it wrong.

He insisted that human history provides “stories, intricate and often nonrepeatable,” which “look more like tricks history has up its sleeve than like social-scientific regularities, not to speak of laws.” He was interested in “the many might-have-beens of history,” including “felicitous and surprising escapes from disaster.” One of his most important essays is called “Against Parsimony,” which argues that people sometimes choose to change their own preferences (consider, for example, efforts to quit smoking), and that some resources, such as love or public spirit, “may well increase rather than decrease through use.”

Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, “history is nothing if not farfetched.” He invented the term “possibilism,” meant to draw attention to “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.” In his lifetime, one of many such outcomes was the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which almost no one anticipated. Speaking of paradoxes: an economist by profession, he wasn’t great at math, and he wrote with remarkable clarity and subtlety.

Hirschman’s work is more than interesting enough to justify a book (or two, or ten), but Adelman’s achievement is to demonstrate, in novelistic detail, that he also lived an astounding life, full of narrow paths and ridiculously improbable twists and turns. Brought up in Berlin, he was raised during the better days of the Weimar Republic, when Berlin was alive with the avant-garde. Both of his parents’ families had converted from Judaism to Protestantism, and the family celebrated Christmas, not as a religious occasion but as a social one, with gifts for the children. Hirschman was baptized but declined to be confirmed: “Somehow I wasn’t impressed by the minister, and I asked my parents to stop.”

At the age of nine, he was sent to the Französisches Gymnasium, an intellectual hothouse from which he graduated in 1932. In the early 1930s, of course, the influence of the Nazi party was swiftly expanding. Hirschman engaged in countless discussions with his Nazi classmates; his physical education teacher wore a swastika. Communism was also an important presence, and so Hirschman had early and close experience with intransigence on both the left and the right. The topic of his final exam was a quotation from Spinoza: “One should neither laugh nor cry at the world, but understand it.”

After graduation, Hirschman began to study economics at the University of Berlin, which was of course in the midst of intense political conflict, and which contained a large number of Hitler supporters. In his own account, the situation did not seem truly grave until “the Reichstag fire, which really marked the beginning of the political horror.” Hirschman faced personal horror as well. His father, a physician, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and quickly died. Confronted by a new law that threw Jews out of universities, Hirschman chose to exit while still in his teens and left for Paris, where he formed relationships with a number of refugees from Russia, Italy, and Germany.

As Adelman tells the tale, Paris left an indelible mark on Hirschman. Surrounded by political dogmas of many different kinds but rejecting every “guiding ism,” he developed an immense enthusiasm for what he called “petites idées”—small ideas and little observations that, for the rest of his life, he would write down in notebooks or on scraps of paper. In Paris he developed the habit of rejecting abstract theories in favor of close observations of actual practices.

In dealing with events during the difficult period between 1935 and 1938, Hirschman showed a great deal of resilience and bravery. He decided to fight in the Spanish civil war against Franco with the very first Italian and German volunteers, some of whom were killed on the battlefield. For the rest of his life, Hirschman remained entirely silent about this experience, even with his wife, though “the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.” Returning from the war, he worked closely with the anti-Fascist Italian underground, carrying secret letters and documents back and forth from Paris.

As war loomed between France and Germany, Hirschman became a soldier for a second time, ready to fight for the French in what many people expected to be a prolonged battle. After the French defense quickly collapsed, Hirschman lived under German occupation and engaged in what was probably the most courageous and hazardous work of his life. Along with Varian Fry, a classicist from Harvard, he labored successfully to get stateless refugees out of France. In 1939 and 1940, they created a network that would enable more than two thousand refugees to exit. As Adelman writes, the “list of the saved reads like a who’s who.” It included Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst. Meticulous logistical planning was required to work out the right routes and to obtain the necessary exit and transit visas. Hirschman’s “colleagues marveled at his skill; for all his youth he was a font of devious ingenuity and seasoned wisdom.”

It was inevitable that Hirschman would find himself at serious personal risk. The Vichy government was helping agents of the Gestapo to find German Jews. It was time to run, taking one of the same routes that he had devised for so many others. Hirschman threw away everything he owned except what he could fit in a little bag (including his precious copy of Montaigne’s Essais and an extra pair of socks). With two other refugees, he started the long, grueling walk through the Pyrenees. Hirschman had to carry one of his exhausted companions for a part of the way.

After seven hours on foot, they crossed into Spain, and Hirschman made it into Portugal, where he waited for five weeks for the SS Excalibur, the ship that would take him to New York. In his mid-twenties, he wrote his mother, still in Germany, from the ship:

I shall enter this country with the will of getting to something, of showing that I have merited the extraordinary chain of lucky incidents which have led me here. Though I still love France, I am of course disappointed in many ways, and this makes my fourth—or is it the fifth?—emigration easier for me.

Hirschman had of course experienced plenty of horrific bad luck as well, but his characteristic hopefulness stood him in good stead. (One of his books is called A Bias for Hope.) Courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation, he accepted a two-year fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. Soon after his arrival there, he met Sarah Chapiro in the cafeteria at International House. Instantly captivated by her, he proposed eight weeks later, and she accepted.

At Berkeley, Hirschman focused on the effects of international trade on national economies. As part of his research, he developed statistical indices designed to measure market concentration (the degree to which a market is dominated by a limited number of firms) and market power. In a letter to his sister, Hirschman described his results as “pretty interesting”—a lovely understatement in view of the fact that those results continue to have basic importance for many areas of economics (including antitrust), under the name of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, which measures the level of concentration in industries, and thus helps show how competitive they are. (Orris Herfindahl is often given credit for the index, but Hirschman got there first.)

Exploring the consequences of national power for the structure of foreign trade, Hirschman published his first book in 1945. Among other things, it addressed an interesting puzzle: Nazi Germany shifted from commerce with other wealthy nations to dealing with its smaller and less prosperous neighbors (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania). Hirschman explained that it did so in order to achieve economic and thus political dominance over them. The problem is that when some nations are wealthier than others, national sovereignty can produce economic sovereignty over entire regions. Hirschman’s first book, largely ignored in its own time and also ours, helps to explain a number of current predicaments. Consider China’s growing economic power and the political dominance that is resulting from that power.

As the book was being completed, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the young German economist, so recently a soldier in Spain and France, promptly enlisted in the US Army. Originally assigned to a combat unit, Hirschman was shifted to the Office of Strategic Services, where he worked as an interpreter. He read voraciously, including Albert Camus and Friedrich Hayek, whose great work, The Road to Serfdom, he found “very useful for someone like me who grew up in a ‘collectivist’ climate—it makes you rethink many things….” Notwithstanding his extensive reading, he abandoned the idea of an academic career, believing that he had no future in it.

After the war ended, Hirschman was assigned to be the interpreter in the first Allied war crimes trial, brought against the German General Anton Dostler, who had ordered the execution of prisoners in plain violation of conventions of war. Hirschman sat next to Dostler through the dramatic five-day trial. What must this have been like for him? The only record of his feelings is a single sentence in The New York Times, which reported that the nameless American “interpreter turned pale as he had to utter the death sentence” to the German general. Home in California, Sarah came across a black-and-white photo of her husband, leaning close to the Nazi general. Reading about how the interpreter went pale, she “breathed a sigh of relief that the war had not destroyed her husband’s sensitivity.”

After returning to Washington, Hirschman was hired by the Federal Reserve Board and then the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), where he emphasized the need for multilateral trading and helped to develop the thinking behind the Marshall Plan. With his ECA office just a few blocks from the White House, Hirschman argued vigorously against postwar austerity and for opening rather than closing markets. (It is reasonable to speculate that in the current economic situation, he would be a strong opponent of both austerity and protectionism.) Notwithstanding the high quality of his work, McCarthyism hit him directly and hard. A security review wrongly concluded, on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors, that he had some sympathy with communism. As a result, he was dismissed from the federal government in 1951. Adelman shows that false rumors about his past had dogged him since he joined the army.

Now with two daughters, Hirschman and his wife made their way to South America and to Colombia. There he went to work for the World Bank, acquired a lifelong interest in Latin America, and shifted the focus of his work to economic development. Advising Colombia’s president, he found a large disconnect between standard economic theory and actual practice. He produced a paper called “Case Studies of Instances of Successful Economic Development in Colombia,” which emphasized surprising success stories, including that of a bank specializing in small loans to individuals, artisans, and small firms, “which has experienced remarkable expansion recently due to novel methods and political support.”

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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