Saturday, August 26, 2006

Albert O. Hirschman V (Finale)

I'll conclude the series I've been doing (finally) on the works of Albert O. Hirschman, one of maybe a half dozen economists sufficiently grounded to the planet enough to put confidence in their words. I want to spend a little time on a couple of compilations of his essays, Essays in Trespassing: Economics to Politics and Beyond and Rival Views of Market Society and Other Recent Essays. He apparently had other compilations earlier in his career, Journeys Toward Progress: Studies of Economic Policy-Making in Latin America and A Bias for Hope: Essays on Development and Latin America, that I haven't read, mainly because I never saw them at the book store (like all the others I've reviewed here) at some point over the last decade or so (now only Exit, Voice and Loyalty is likely to turn up) and haven't really gotten online to track them down yet.

I haven't been as interested in the early works because, while the writings of his on development are extremely informed and thoughtful and predictably more insightful than most development writings, even with the recent critiques of the World Bank and IMF, I'm just not that interested in that topic. And that's also a problem for me with the two remaining books at hand here. Several of the contributions to both are on development and its problems, but, if you don't know much about the topic or only get your views from the economic press and pundits, you owe it to yourself to get an objective and experienced view.

What is good about Essays and Rival Views is the remaining writings. For one thing, many of them give him a chance to respond to critiques of his works like Exit and The Passions and the Interests, reviewed here earlier. Essays in Trespassing is essentially nothing but his chance to rethink his views on those works and other earlier ones, such as National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade and The Strategy of Economic Development (again, unread by me). The benefit, of course, is that you get his summary of his themes in the books as well as what others have said and how he has responded. Since Exit is my favorite of his books, one of my favorite of all books, hearing his addendums is especially helpful, particularly his expansion of the concept of "voice," which he tells us now is, compared to exit, richer, more modulated, exuberant, treacherous, and hazardous (which is why I've tended to opt for exit once it was clear the voice could cost too much and still fail). In Rival Views, he makes clear that more attention should be given to "voice" as it reflects the complexity of social life that many (most?) fellow economists have unfortunately missed in their simplistic modeling (my words, not his). His last couple of essays, on Passions, are a call for a return to the older, broader (more complex, again) view of econ and society exemplified by Adam Smith and dumped on by his devoted followers.

This understanding of and emphasis on complexity is the hallmark of Hirschman's work and what drew me to him from the beginning. His work in economic development, trying to apply simplified models to a complex world, made him able to see the application of the dynamic field of complexity theory to society, politics, and economics well before the discipline even got started. Reading his works, you see the contingency and power of social interactions with their flows and tipping points and unintended consequences, as well as the ways that streams of human events can produce similarities of thought and action. I realize that, in giving you just a cursory view of these two books' 22 essays plus intro notes, I've failed to convey what's in them much (but there are 22 essays plus intro notes!!!). I hope that the earlier reviews on his monographs will give you the flavor of what you find in these two. In fact, if you only have time for one Hirschman book, one of these might be what you should do (I'd go with Essays). You'll get his recaps and updates. And probably go ahead and check out the other books, after all.

I know I take shots at economists here without always explaining why. I find most of them, with their truncated views of reality and history and their exalted views of themselves and discipline, so limited and predictable in a world that's not that I groan when they open their mouths because they are just "capitalist" versions of the old, failed communists, similarly unaware of their ignorance and liabilities. But there is the alternative tradition, the way of the Smiths, Heilbroners and Galbraiths, Lindbloms and Hirschmans, to actually study the world as it is, not as their dogmas and gospels would have it. Hirschman writes the shortest, most densely packed with insight pieces, and his style is every bit as entertaining as Heilbroner or Galbraith. (I left the others out intentionally.) If you've realized yourself that economists are saying more about their religion than their reality but still want somebody to help you get to understanding, Hirschman is where you should start. You'll just feel smarter when you're done.