Albert O. Hirschman: The Passions and the Interests

Subtitled Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, this is one of those econ books, like Polanyi and Schumpeter, that grabbed me by taking a historiographical approach to thinkers past. It’s a short book and its arguments are narrowly drawn and keenly observed: namely, how the long-condemened sin of avarice (or people’s “interests”) came to be seen as a utopian savior of people from their own worst instincts (i.e., “passions”). Hirschman sums it up with a quote of Montesquieu’s:

And it is fortunate for men to be in a situation in which, though their passions may prompt them to be wicked, they have nevertheless an interest in not being so.

Hirschman traces this line of argument through Steuart, Smith, Quesnay, and so forth. The unifying strand is that economic efficiency and rationality, in the form of Smith’s “invisible hand” or somesuch free market, will act as a stabilizing force for society to counteract the whims and crazes of the sovereign. For some (Montesquieu, Smith), these forces are embodied in capitalists and capitalist institutions; for others (the Physiocrats), they are embodied in the rulers themselves.

Ironically, it is in Tocqueville that Hirschman sees a viable counterargument. Tocqueville worries that by sublimating themselves to their interests, people come to ignore all but law and order, and will all too willingly subjugate themselves to a ruler who promises them pursuit of their private interests. Says Tocqueville:

These people think they follow the doctrine of interest, but they have only a crude idea of what it is, and, to watch the better over what they call their business, they neglect the principal part of it which is to remain their own masters.

And this sounds to me like a prescient prediction of the death of the American Dream, later described in graphic detail by C. Wright Mills. Hirschman bemoans the fact that the polar positions have not progressed; that rather, we still see people arguing from the naive points of view for or against the “interests.” He singles out Keynes and Schumpeter in particular for having offered the same rationalistic defense of capitalism as Montesquieu, hundreds of years earlier, without bothering to address Tocqueville’s criticisms.

Aside from the fact that the left-right political distinction seems not to apply cleanly to the thinkers Hirschman considers, it’s worth noting what a desiccated tradition has been left us by modern psychology in considering economic issues. Today it is little more than greed that is considered as a “passion” itself, aside from the religious fervor of much of the country, which does not qualify as an emotional passion per se. Hirschman points out the concerns that an exclusive focus on economic gain as a core value of society could lead (pace Weber) to the decaying emotional life of the country. The lack of focus on the true passions leads to the fabled “nation of no imagination.” Yet it’s not Marxism that suggests an antidote, as Marx remains firmly focused on “interests” in simply other forms. I think that you must go back to Greece and Rome to find thinkers who attempted to find a successful integrated societal model of the “passions.”

I wonder, however, if the study of the passions are making a slight return now in the form of evolutionary psychology, in the repeated articulation of the naturalistic fallacy. (I should say, however, that economists like Amartya Sen, who wrote the introduction to the edition of the Hirschman book that I have, have probably made the most impressive integrative approach in working out models of irrational behavior.) As with Social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology makes it tempting to explain away irrational behavior and its consequences as hopelessly endemic, only to be tempered by appealing to other innate drives. One of these is greed, and from that we return to the free market arguments Hirschman considers. We seem to live in more fatalistic times when our options are to ignore the passions or to surrender to them as robots.

Leave a Reply