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Hirschman on the History of Exit

June 30, 2011

Via Macroresilience, I came upon a fascinating paper by the father of the exit-voice paradigm. It has some interesting anthropoligical tidbits, quoting Claude Levi-Strauss:

No social structure is weaker and more fragile than the Nambikuara band. If the chief’s authority appears too exacting, if he keeps too many women for himself, or if he does not satisfactorily solve the food problem in times of scarcity, discontent will very likely appear. Then, individuals, or families, will separate from the group and join another band believed to be better managed….Therefore, Nambikuara social structure appears continually on the move. The bands take shape, they disorganize, they increase and they vanish. Within a few months, sometimes, their composition, number and distribution cannot be recognized.

Here’s Montesquieu on how mobile and elusive capital acts as a check on the sovereign:

Through this means commerce could elude violence, and maintain itself everywhere, for the richest trader had only invisible wealth which could be sent everywhere without leaving any trace…Since that time, the rulers have been compelled to govern with greater wisdom than they themselves might have intended; for, owing to this events, the great and sudden arbitrary actions of the sovereign have been proven to be ineffective and…only good government brings prosperity [to the prince.]

And though Hirchman says competitive governance is a “polyphonic” solution too beautiful to be real, he nonetheless gives an illuminating description of it:

The availability in a country of any one of these public goods serves to hold exit at bay and to increase loyalty. It is possible to visualize a state system in which, in spite of close contact and free movement of people and capital, exit would never assume threatening proportions because each country would supply its citizens with a different assortment of public goods, with emphasis on one area (or a cluster) as a special attraction for its own citizens. Different countries would then “specialize” in power, wealth, growth, equity, peacefulness, the observance of human rights, and so on…Achievements along the various dimensions just mentioned are not easily combined into a unique preference scale or welfare function; it is likely, however, that if a country’s citizens were equipped with a modicum of loyalty to start with, they would value the particular area in which their country excels–whatever that may be–more highly than that of the others. An ethnocentric welfare function of this sort may therefore be a condition for a stable state system under modern circumstances of high potential mobility.

Read the whole thing.

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3 Comments
  1. July 3, 2011 1:04 am

    It is stunning how clearly he understands the benefits of exit among primitive tribes, how clearly he recites the 18th century case for exit, and how he then glibly and without any real justification asserts that exit in the modern world is harmful. Of course monopolists fearing a loss of monopoly powers would have concern over “excessive exit.” The question is why should anyone else?

    Hirschman’s affection for “voice” strikes me as almost a pure case of “Politics with Romance.” Why have any restrictions on exit? It is fine if “loyalty” for a particular good happens to be part of one’s preference structure, but if not, why should one face any unnecessary exit costs?

  2. July 6, 2011 2:31 pm

    You should definitely check out James Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed” on exit.

    Despite my respect for Hirschmann introducing the paradigm, I never understood his criticisms of exit relative to voice (although he seemed to perceive himself as correcting a blindspot in economics).

    • Zach C permalink
      July 6, 2011 3:28 pm

      There is a great chapter in Pierre Clastres’ ‘Society Against the State’ about mass exodus as the ultimate check on tyranny among South American tribes. During times of strife or war, returning generals would attempt to subjugate the tribe with their residual armies. People would align behind dissenting priests (who associated the State with otherwordly evil) and flee together. Anthony de Jasay cites this work in ‘The State’ alongside Hirschman, I believe.

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