This beautifully written biography of German-born economist Albert O. Hirschman is well worth reading for its insights into a man who experienced the political events that gave birth to today’s world, saw the flawed ideologies that got us to where we are now, and saw how to identify and avoid those ideologies that might lead us astray in the future.
Sooner or later, we all come to understand our parents’ flaws. For Otto-Albert Hirschmann, the scion of a Jewish intellectual family in Weimar Berlin, that moment, he thought, came as a teenager when he discovered that his father had no overarching worldview, calling out to his sister in disbelief, “Weißt du was? Vati hat keine Weltanschauung!” (“Do you know what? Daddy has no worldview!”).
In that era, the grand worldviews of Hegel, Marx, Heine, and Goethe saturated the gymnasiums that educated the students of Hirschmann’s social class. And as the sordid history of the 20th century would show, this fashion for Weltanschauungs was not necessarily a good thing.
Hirschman rode in the eye of that storm between 1933 and 1945. (He dropped the second “n” in his last name and reversed the order of his first and middle names, removing the hyphen, when he moved to the United States in 1941.) His Marxism and ethnicity pushed him to, successively, flee to Paris; fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; join the French Army just before it was overrun by the Nazis; run a Marseille underground railroad that spirited the likes of Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Alma Mahler, and Heinrich Mann out of France; and serve in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), translating both routine local publications and the testimony of Nazi war criminals. At the conclusion of the first tribunal of the war, Private Hirschman’s face turned white as he informed Wehrmacht General Anton Dostler that he was to be “shot to death by musketry.” He was mustered out as a mere sergeant, his lowly rank the result of a tainted security file filled with his youthful socialist connections.
The older Hirschman got, the smarter his father became. In his youth, Hirschman grew disenchanted with the 20th century’s most disastrous Weltanschauungs: Marxism and fascism. After brief postwar stints at the Federal Reserve Board and the European Recovery Program (the official name of the Marshall Plan), Hirschman was condemned by the perceived blemishes on his security clearance to the outskirts of development economics. There, he became equally disenchanted with its “big ideas,” especially “balanced growth” (most prominently espoused by Walter Rostow), which posited that since poor countries were nonindustrialized, they could move, in carefully choreographed stages, from “backwardness” to “maturity” with massive road-, dam-, and factory-building projects.
It was, as we now know, a fantasy; Hirschman, who had read Hayek while in London, realized that poor nations lacked something deeper: a functioning price mechanism buttressed by the rule of law and civil society. Needless to say, his scorn for the development economics dogma of the day banished him for good from the corridors of power; after returning to the United States, he took a series of academic jobs, in which he began his search for small ideas to replace the Weltanschauungs so loved by political economists. (He did not entirely escape the era’s faith in externally directed grandiose development schemes, believing, for example, that irrigation projects somehow fostered the emergence of the trustworthy and effective public institutions so lacking in most poor nations.)
During one 1960s whirlwind “development tour,” he passed through Nigeria and noticed that merchants had abandoned the dysfunctional national rail system for truckers. He asked himself just why merchants had not pushed the government to improve service, and thus, he embarked on the work for which he will be remembered: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Harvard University Press, 1970). More generally, he asked why citizens and customers choose to cease participating, emigrate, or switch vendors (exit) instead of agitating to improve performance (voice). Loyalty, the afterthought in the title, favors the latter over the former.
Largely because of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Hirschman enjoys a certain cult status, more among social scientists than among economists. His biographer, the Princeton economic historian Jeremy Adelman, overstates his subject’s influence, as biographers are wont to do, in Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman; Hirschman was not a major player in the era’s policy discussions. Typical of the author’s excessive focus on Hirschman’s contributions is his discussion of the United States’ retreat from its prewar autarky, which completely neglects two of the prime movers in this story: Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his assistant secretary for economic affairs, William Clayton. The former’s prewar Reciprocal Trade Agreements and the latter’s “Proposals for Expansion of World Trade and Employment” laid the basis for today’s hugely successful GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) regime and probably prevented another world war.
While Adelman’s prose goes down easily and the Princeton University Press’s copyediting is superb, its structural editing fails. Far too many of the book’s 760 pages of text are wasted on academic “inside baseball”; for example, there are several pages of excruciating detail concerning the petty bureaucratic turmoil at the Institute for Advanced Study that preceded Hirschman’s arrival there.
Paradoxically, Adelman seems hypnotized by the grandiose ideologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Hirschman ultimately abandoned, and I suspect that most general readers, and certainly those of the FAJ, will find his lengthy detours through them both tedious and irrelevant.
Hirschman’s journey speaks to us more than his waypoints, which grew ever smaller in scope. In 1953, Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” divided thinkers into two groups: hedgehogs, who view the world through a single, great idea—the Weltanschauung that the teenage Hirschman found so lacking in his father—and foxes, who see the world through a kaleidoscope of viewpoints. Ever so slowly, Hirschman moved from hedgehog to fox.
Thanks to the work of psychologist Philip E. Tetlock, we now know that foxes are better forecasters than hedgehogs.1 Tetlock’s research gives statistical voice to Hirschman’s intuition: beware the ideologue, no matter his or her stripe. Economics, like politics and geopolitics, presents humanity with complex and unpredictable systems, and it is best to avoid philosophers and political economists bearing unitary Weltanschauungs, no matter how elegant and appealing they may be.
In spite of these flaws, Worldly Philosopher is beautifully written and is well worth reading as the biography of a man who experienced, as fully as anyone could, the political events that gave birth to today’s world and who saw, as clearly as anyone could, the flawed ideologies that got us to where we are now—and, most critically, saw how to identify and avoid those ideologies that might lead us astray in the future.