Jon Elster

  • Essays in Trespassing: Economics to Politics and Beyond by Albert Hirschman
    Cambridge, 310 pp, £20.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 521 23826 9
  • Shifting Involvements by Albert Hirschman
    Martin Robertson, 138 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 85520 487 7

In Anglo-American social science Albert Hirschman occupies a position at once central and peripheral, or at least anomalous. Of his centrality there can be no doubt. As one of three permanent members of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he has a unique vantage-point for gathering and influencing scholars from all over the world. His Strategy for Economic Development (1958) had an immense impact on development economics, by introducing the notions of backward and forward linkages, and by preaching the virtues of unbalanced growth. The short and incisive Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970) was an instant classic of political science no less than of economics. In that book he looked at ‘exit’, i.e. taking one’s business elsewhere, and ‘voice’, i.e. protest against the leadership, as alternative ‘responses to decline in firms, organisations and states’. This way of rephrasing the distinction between economic and political behaviour proved very useful, although the main virtue of the book lay elsewhere. Drawing on an extremely broad range of empirical knowledge, sifted, purified and rearranged by an acute and imaginative analytical mind, it generated a state of almost intolerable intellectual excitement in the reader. For many of us it provided a durable model of what a work in the social sciences should be like: free of jargon, devoid of abstract theorising, wide-ranging in application, yet with an intense analytical focus. Among current practitioners of the social sciences only Thomas Schelling and Amos Tversky come to mind as demonstrating to the same extent Hirschman’s quality of controlled imagination.

Yet Hirschman is not a part of the social-science establishment. This has nothing to do with his European origins. Many of the other scholars who left Europe in the late Thirties or the early Forties went on to become pillars of the American academic community. Rather his outsider status – as I perceive it – is due to the faint aura of the amateurish surrounding his work. To achieve power in the social sciences, one must have something teachable to impart, be it a formal theoretical approach or techniques for collecting and analysing data. Hirschman can have no pupils, only kindred spirits. It would be incorrect to say that he is a jack of many trades, but master of none, for in his ‘trespassing’ from one discipline to another he is indeed a master of the inventive analogy. He is a professional all-round amateur: his task is that of perceiving connections, and connections between connections, rather than that of grinding out theorems and correlations. Writers of his ilk are at the pinnacle of the profession, in the triple sense of being supremely gifted, having the ability to survey a variety of disciplines and being parasitic on what goes on at the lower levels. It is good that there are some people like him, and good that not everybody is like that.

Sadly, the two books under review do not come up to the high standards to which we had become accustomed. To those of us who want him to be perfect, they come as a disappointment. To put it bluntly, but in a friendly spirit, Hirschman appears to have been spoilt by success. There is an element of self-indulgence, sometimes of self-congratulation, that prevents him from achieving the same rigour and clarity that characterised his earlier work. The self-indulgence shows itself in a predilection for unsubstantiated speculation. The self-congratulation crops up on the numerous occasions when he feels obliged to tell the reader that some observation or other is novel, that a certain connection ‘has not been duly noticed’, ‘has remained invisible’, is ‘unfamiliar’, ‘surprising’, ‘overlooked’, ‘has hardly been noted’. These are mere irritants, and it might appear needlessly uncharitable to mention them. The matter is more serious when Hirschman, in the opening chapter of his Essays in Trespassing, states that his earlier work on unbalanced growth was a forerunner of Herbert Simon’s work on ‘satisficing’, when the chronology tells us that Simon’s famous article preceded Hirschman’s book by four years. I also think it detracts from his achievements when he goes out of his way to pat himself on the back, as in the following, not uncharacteristic passage from an essay on policy-making in Latin America: ‘the fact that I was led right into [these speculations] from seemingly innocuous and abstract reasoning about the characteristics of policy-making sequences shows how studies in the field can serve to illuminate not just how tax or education policy is made – an important enough endeavour in itself, of course – but can contribute something to the understanding of the most important, baffling and tragic events in recent Latin American history.’ Yes, perhaps, but why not leave such reflections to the reader?

In Hirschman’s recent work, the substantive analysis of social phenomena is increasingly embedded in, and at times almost submerged by, a variety of meta-inquiries. There is, first, the taxonomy of social theories with an eye to showing how his own approach relates to others. This is of course a legitimate procedure, but Hirschman sometimes is too carried away by the delights of pigeonholing. There are too many phrases like the following: ‘It is at this point, among others, that the linkage approach and the staple thesis make contact with the development-of-underdevelopment thesis.’ Secondly, there are numerous excursions into intellectual history. In his previous work on The Passions and the Interests (1977), subtitled ‘Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph’, Hirschman explored at some length, and with great success, the 18th-century idea that le doux commerce had a beneficial impact on political stability, over and above the consequences for economic growth. In Shifting Involvements the historical perspective is also important, and generally very illuminating. The historical sketches offered in the various Essays in Trespassing are less interesting, and, more often than not, only preliminaries to the construction of typologies. Some inaccuracies occur. Thus Marx is said to have denied ‘any claim of mutual benefit from trade between capitalist and “backward” countries’ – Marx in the Theories of Surplus-Value makes the point that the former exploit the latter even though both parties gain from exchange. Also, the reference to John Rawls is misleading. His statement in A Theory of Justice that ‘a departure from the institutions of equal liberty ... cannot be justified or compensated for by greater social or economic advantage,’ was explicitly made within the context of ideal theory, neglecting the problem of how to get from here to there. Hence Rawls is prepared to accept, as are those accused by Hirschman of ignoring him, that second-best considerations might justify sacrifice of liberty in an imperfect society. Yet Hirschman’s slightly cavalier attitude to the classics is not overly disturbing. Even those who know little of the history of ideas would not take Hirschman for an authority, and even those who know much can profit greatly from some of his insights.

Thirdly, and less acceptably, he engages constantly in a highly speculative sociology of knowledge. Not content with comparing his views to those of others, and tracing the genesis of the latter, he also tries to explain the emergence – and non-emergence – of theories in terms of social or intellectual ‘needs’. These explanations in some cases have a good deal of intuitive plausibility. It may well be true that the doctrine of the Invisible Hand ‘assured those who had been brought up with the permanent injunction to serve the public weal, yet somehow found themselves absorbed by money-making activities, that they had by no means betrayed their calling,’ and that this, in fact, explains the extraordinary success of Adam Smith’s theory. Yet some kind of specific evidence would be needed before this explanation could be seriously entertained. If the doctrine succeeded because it relieved the guilt feelings of the conquering bourgeois, then presumably these feelings could be identified in their unrelieved state, and their ‘relief’ observed as an event rather than as a mere absence. Hirschman might well reply that in the intellectual division of labour, his is the task of devising hypotheses, not of testing them. The problem, however, is that in the sociology of knowledge it is all too easy to invent plausible-sounding explanations of theories in terms of the needs they serve.

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