David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Albert O. Hirschman: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Genealogically speaking, this book isn’t as captivating as Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, because it’s not a survey of past rationales, but an analysis of contemporary behaviors in response to this phenomenon:

Firms and other organizations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, that is, to a gradual loss of rationality, efficiency, and surplus-producing energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.

Free of the meta-analysis, Hirschman doesn’t manage the ideological sweep of the other book, but there’s enough here that should interest even the most impractical humanities scholar. (Like the other book, this one is very short.) Hirschman’s structure is simple: when employees or consumers of an institution are faced with decline of how that institution serves and services them, they either vocalize their grievances (“voice”) or they vote with their feet (that would be “exit”). Various constraints make one option more attractive than the other, and sometimes exit isn’t available, or voice is minimized. There are two scenarios in particular, one conceptual and one historical.

The first is Hirschman’s free-market apostasy in saying that competition can work against voice, since the more vocal and less vocal can be separated into equally impotent factions. The easily dissatisfied ping-pong between equally bad options while the more inertial sorts stick around and don’t complain, giving no incentive for the institution to improve. (Think cell-phone companies.) This plays itself out in a more class-stratified way if there is a better but more expensive option for the privileged class to exit towards, leaving the less empowered stuck with a system that again has fewer incentives to change. (Think public and private schools.) Under orthodox conceptions, this is no prisoner’s dilemma, as the free-marketer would expect any exit to motivate the institution to improvement. In actuality, the institution will often be glad to be rid of these complainers. Sometimes it’s because they weren’t worth the trouble, but often it reinforces existing resistance to the troublesome process of reversing decline. One look at the sociologically fascinating Mini-Microsoft reveals a handful of salutary problems facing Microsoft in decline:

  1. Many of the most creative and most vocal leaders and employees have already left.
  2. Those remaining are miserable.
  3. Because of the first factor, the company has less incentive to address the second.
  4. The company’s attempts to stem the damage are perceived as cosmetic, and because of the above reasons, probably are.
  5. Remaining executives are perceived as not being accountable in the slightest and cashing in.
  6. If the increasingly livid tenor of the comments is any indication, things are getting worse, not better.

Mini-Microsoft is a particularly interesting case because even though the remaining employees are an extremely vocal and articulate bunch, the exit behavior appears to have caused a backlash demoralizing both executives and low-level employees. Hirschman’s optimistic suggestion that voice be recognized before things decay to this point seems unrealistic, however, since it requires a foresight that no institution can be expected to have: why listen to people gripe when everything is fine? I fear that only the absence of exit makes voice truly viable, and that is only because the possibility for organized, open revolt exists when those first exiters aren’t able to leave.

Point two: the United States was founded on exit, grew through exit, and exit is ingrained in its psyche. Founded by those who voted with their feet, grown on cheap immigrant labor, expanded through pioneer expeditions, and granted the luxury of isolationism through geographical position, the country has been notably reticent to address complainers, and the massive backlash against civil rights and entitlement programs is only one of the more distasteful examples. Complaint is frowned upon precisely because of the “If you don’t like it, go to Russia” ethos:

Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?

Ironically, this book was written in 1970, so Hirschman cites the black power movement as a notable exception to this trend. Forty years later, a singular, failed exception it remains.

I have not spent enough time with other cultures to have a sense of how distinctively American this trait is, but people from Tocqueville to Veblen to Richard Hofstadter have remarked on it, so I’ll assume it’s at least more extreme here. It makes me wonder if the comparative absence of politically-engaged novels and works of philosophy in U.S. history (note that I am talking about political engagement rather than agitation and muckraking, so I don’t count Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis, nor the disenfranchised voices of Baldwin, Ellison et al.; Dewey is a notable exception, however) can be traced not only to individualism, but also to the disparagement of voice in our culture. Do we teach our writers to stay the hell out of politics? Is that why our supposed politically-engaged writers (Mailer, DeLillo, Franzen) are such a joke?


  1. I don’t think the absence of politically engaged novels has anything to do with a cultural predilection. Art and politics are not compatible; Mozart thought life was preparation for death. The more interesting point you raise for me is the separation that occurs between the members of the vocal community. Why would voice dominate membership in the determination of activity by the members of that community?

  2. As you might imagine, such analyses have much occupied my mind over the past few years. A hostile and unwelcome occupation it’s been, too.

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