Exit, Voice and Reform

Albert Hirschman, an eminent economist and political thinker, has died. He was a towering figure, an economist who refused to reduce human interactions to commercial transactions, and who understood that human behavior is motivated by more than a desire for comparative advantage.

The book for which Hirschman is best known is his classic  Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The Economist gives a good summary of its basic argument:

Mr Hirschman argued that people have two different ways of responding to disappointment. They can vote with their feet (exit) or stay put and complain (voice). Exit has always been the default position in the United States: Americans are known as being quick to up sticks and move. It is also the default position in the economics profession. Indeed, when his book appeared, Milton Friedman and his colleagues in the Chicago School were busy extending the empire of exit to new areas. If public schools or public housing were rotten, they argued, people should be encouraged to escape them.

Mr Hirschman raised some problems with the cult of exit. Sometimes, it entrenches the status quo. Dictators may rule longer if their bravest critics flee abroad (indeed, Cuba uses emigration as a safety valve). Monopolies may have an easier life if their stroppiest customers find an alternative. Mr Hirschman got the idea for his book during a ghastly train journey in Nigeria: he concluded that the country’s railways were getting worse because the most vocal customers were shifting to the roads.

Exit may also reinforce the cycle of decline. State schools may get worse if the pushiest parents take their custom elsewhere. Mr Hirschman worried that a moderate amount of exit might produce the worst of all worlds: “an oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy which is the more durable and stifling as it is both unambitious and escapable.”…

But Mr Hirschman’s overall point was not that exit is bad but that exit and “voice” work best together. Reformers are more likely to be able to fix an organisation if there is a danger that their clients will leave. The problem with Friedman et al was that they focused only on exit and not on how exit and voice could be used to reinforce each other.

I’ve quoted a rather long segment of the Economist’s piece, because Hirschman’s point is critically important, and all too frequently ignored.

Without the right to exit, there can be no freedom. But if our only choice is between shutting up and leaving, there can be no progress, no institutional improvement. That’s the great virtue of dissent, of voice–something the  “love it or leave it” folks seem unable to grasp.

Sometimes, we want to remain in a situation–a marriage, a job, a country–because we care enough to want to improve it.

1 Comment

  1. With small civic groups and nonprofit organizations, one of my deep frustrations is with people who “vote with their feet.” I understand that folks may disagree with the way things are run, but to leave rather than at least broach the idea of change seems either lazy or cowardly (or both) to me. I was aghast when a “one-foot-out-the-door” peer expressed to me that she “did not feel fulfilled” in her membership, yet had volunteered for no committees (indeed, had declined requests for her participation), nor did she participate in activities available to her. Worse, when she criticized the leadership for not keeping up with some of the traditional programs (due to shortage of volunteers), she was invited to lead – or at least help – on committees to revive those programs and she declined with the excuse that she didn’t have the time.

    I understand a full schedule (we are all desperately short on time, these days), and I understand disagreement with the established norm (and welcome it — sometimes the best change comes from disagreement). I even understand “exit” when a situation no longer fits or works or satisfies. What I don’t understand is “exit” without making an effort to improve where you are at.

Comments are closed.