The Economist Who Outdid Camus

Reading Jeremy Adelman’s Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman is to enter to a particular sort of world we have lost,  in order to ponder a question about the world we live in today. If you have seen Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy or read The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal, you will know the world I mean; if you have seen Casablanca, you will have briefly glimpsed it.

Hirschman was born in 1915.  His life of action peaked in the years before and just after World War II: Berlin in 1933, London in 1935-36, a few months as an antifascist volunteer in the early days of the Spanish Civil War, a PhD of sorts at the University of Trieste, service in the French army and resistance in Vichy France, the US Office of Strategic Services during the war, and, at its end, the trial in Rome of a German general for crimes against US soldiers, service at the Federal Reserve Board and, as a kind of denouement, the Marshall Plan.

There followed four decades of observation and reflection.  Hirschman had a lively family; a stylish life; and made resourceful accommodation to a new life in the United States. He had a long career, first as an economist concerned with development in South America and Africa, then as author of a famous book (Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States) and as intellectual historian, all of it adding up to much distinction, but not the ultimate recognition for which his friends had hoped. Why no Nobel Prize? “No question came up more often in the course of a decade’s research on this book,” writes Princeton University historian Adelman. He concludes:

Hirschman’s odyssey can be read as a journey with no particular end, the life of an idealist with no utopia because he believes that the voyage of life itself yielded enough lessons to change who we are and what we aspire to be; to require and stay on course towards an abstract destination threatened to deprive the journey of its richest possibilities.  Odysseus’s quest was a homecoming to Ithaca; by contrast, Hirschman course had no destination.

Thanks to Adelman’s magnificent biography, there may yet be an Ithaca, after all, for one of the greatest action-intellectuals of the twentieth century.

Certainly it is a gripping story, even if you don’t know anything about the history of development economics in the years after World War II. Hirschman was born in Berlin to a family of thoroughly assimilated Jews, and enjoyed a privileged youth in Weimar Germany. He left Berlin for Paris in April 1933, days after his father’s death, two month after Hitler’s accession to the German chancellorship. Already the seventeen-year-old law student’s friends were being arrested.  Hirschman spent the next decade fighting the Nazis.

His most celebrated adventure was the five months in 1940 he spent with American activist Varian Fry smuggling stateless persons out of France. The two met in Marseilles, where Fry had been sent by a US trade union committee on a mission help refugees.  Hirschman became his all-round guide and expert forger of travel documents. Among the fifteen hundred or so persons they spirited out of France, often in dangerous treks over the Pyrenees, were Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel. Hirschman himself walked out only at the last moment and made his way to Lisbon; Fry returned to New York.

Adelman is even better chronicling the hard time Hirschman had finding a place. He bounced around in the1950s, consulting to the government of Colombia on behalf of the World Bank, teaching at Yale, spending a disappointing year at RAND, in Santa Monica. He was on the verge of going back to Colombia, there to “hang around hotel lobbies trying to land new contracts,” when Ragnar Nurske died, whereupon the other Columbia, the university in New York, hired him to teach international economics.  A year later he was appointed professor and, a few years after that, he moved to Harvard.

There was not much traction in the profession for an economist with no math, even after Michael Rothschild sought to help him with formalization, in contrast to his old friend from Marshall Plan days, Thomas Schelling, who felt his way along the seams to game theory well enough to earn a Nobel Prize. Then in 1969, Hirschman abandoned development theory to write a different kind of book.  Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1971) was an extended meditation on the choices individuals made when faced with disappointing circumstances: speak up and hope to change things, or defect to the competition. The book had more in common with the Essais of Montaigne than with the formal language of game theory; it lacked the tool-like application that might have made it a rival to the more famous prisoner’s dilemma.  Yet it illuminated the border between economics (exit) and politics (voice). It was deemed a classic by all the wrong people; the nascent subdiscipline of public choice economics turned its back.

Carl Kaysen recruited Hirschman to the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton.  There he wrote four more books of essays: The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (1977); Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action (1982),  Rival Views of Market Processes (1986); and The Rheoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (1991).  They could be mistaken for intellectual history.  Formalism had passed him by.  Only here does Adelman’s book fail.  The fundamental novelty of Hirschman’s ideas doesn’t come through. That’s no surprise; they haven’t yet come through to the profession. Nobel laureate Eric Maskin, of Harvard University, who succeeded Hirschman in the social science chair at the Institute, thinks those may yet prove susceptible to formalization, widespread adoption, and subsequent translation back into natural language.

Hirschman died in 2012.  There would be no Nobel Prize. In many ways, Adelman’s biography is enough to preserve the memory of the life he lived for future generations.  Even better would be a volume combining his essays in the Library of America, the semi-official canon of the nation’s most significant literature. John Kenneth Galbraith has an LOA volume. Why not Hirschman?  (Perhaps The Essential Hirschman, with an introduction by Adelman and an afterword by Amartya Sen and Emma Rothschild, due out this autumn from Princeton University Press, could eventually migrate to serve the purpose.)  Before Adelman’s biography, such an idea might have sounded fanciful.  Now it seems like a necessary last journey to bring Hirschman to his proper home – the pantheon of economists of the twentieth century who will remain relevant to the future.

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