Exit and Voice

Exit and Voice September 15, 2015

What do people do when social institutions go wrong? Albert Hirschman (Exit, Voice, and Loyalty) argues that there are two main alternatives: One withdraws (exit) or one speaks out (voice). He admits that these categories sound “suspiciously neat,” but defends them because they “reflect a more fundamental schism: that between economics and politics.”

Economics is governed by exit. Customers who aren’t satisfied stop buying. Hirschman says, “This is the sort of mechanism economics thrives on. It is neat—one either exits or one does not; it is impersonal—any face-to-face confrontation between customer and firm with its imponderable and unpredictable elements is avoided and success and failure of the organization are communicated to it by a set of statistics.”

It would be a mistake to think that politics can be organized in the same way. In politics, it’s voice that matters, and this means that politics is messier. Voice “can be graduated, all the way from faint grumbling to violent protest; it implies articulation of one’s critical opinions rather than a private, ‘secret’ vote in the anonymity of a supermarket; and finally, it is direct and straightforward rather than roundabout. Voice is political action par excellence.” Economistic models of politics miss the fact that “in a whole gamut of human institutions, from the state to the family, voice, however ‘cumbrous,’ is all their members normally have to work with” (the “cumbrous” is from Martin Friedman, arguing for school vouchers that allow people to make a political point by exiting).

Useful as the distinction is, Hirschman thinks that exit and voice need to cross fertilize. Political theorists have to pay attention to exit, economists have to give more attention to voice. Political actors can exit too, after all, though in politics “exit has often been branded as criminal, for it has been labeled desertion, defection, and treason.” And he admits that “a close look at this interplay between market and nonmarket forces will reveal the usefulness of certain tools of economic analysis for the understanding of political phenomena.” His book is an effort “to demonstrate to political scientists the usefulness of economic concepts and to economists the usefulness of political concepts.”

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