Worldly Philosopher

As I’ve already confessed, I’ve read very little by Albert Hirschman. By the time I was learning economics, he and the mainstream of the economics profession had moved quite far along divergent paths. The mainstream was embracing mathematical techniques for modeling and – more significantly – the reductive assumptions about human behaviour and social context that made this approach feasible. Hirschman became increasingly interested in the connection between economic policies and politics. The one book of his I had ever been introduced to was

, and possibly as part of my politics reading rather than economics.

This means Jeremy Adelman’s superb biography,

, has been a real education. Its 600+ pages never flag; this is a very enjoyable book to read. It also means I’ve got some of Hirschman’s other books on the in-pile now, for the great lesson of recent years is that economists need to stay alert to the politics and the human behaviour that define the possibilities of economic choice; and that political scientists and other social scientists for their part need to pay more attention to economic incentives and to the domain of economic choice. Hirschman emerges as above all a careful observer of actual societies and economies, who therefore was multidisciplinary to the marrow.

[amazon_image id=”0691155674″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman[/amazon_image]

The biography begins with his extraordinary early life in the tumultuous Europe of the 1930s and Second World War. A second chunk concerns his work in and on Latin America and economic development more generally, based in a variety of institutions. The final leg covers Hirschman’s more settled period, mainly at Princeton’s IAS, as a distinguished political economist and author of a number of classic books. The book covers in some detail The Passions and the Interests and also his last book,


Hirschman’s conclusions about the nature of capitalism and economic growth have real resonance for the current situation. His reading of the classics, including Adam Smith, made him one of the first people to reclaim (from Milton Friedman and other economists) the wiser Smith who understood that “moral sentiments” as well as self-interest determine people’s behaviour. Adelman sums it up: “The rule of passions could lead, without checks, to horrible utopias; the rein of interests to soulless pragmatism.”

Hirschman argued against the kind of theorising that insisted on pre-determined outcomes from given pre-conditions, insisting instead on the number of possible paths depending on happenstance and unintended consequences. I suppose we would call it pervasive path-dependence; it contrasted greatly with both the mainstream and the alternative or heterodox approaches of the time. He also identified the way that beliefs or expectations constrain outcomes – in the context of developing economies, he thought that policymakers and economists fettered themselves by their own perceptions of insurmountable hurdles or cultural inferiority. Latin America in the 1980s, he thought, was imprisoned by clashing intellectual paradigms, the false dichotomy between free market ‘neoliberalism’ (as we call it now) and Marxist revolution. He wrote: “The obstacles to the perception of change thus turn into an important obstacle to change itself.” Many economists point out the importance of expectations for economic outcomes, but usually in a rather abstract way in a model; expectations are what people believe to lie in the realm of possibility, and are shaped by intellectuals and economists and policymakers, among a whole host of others. We live in a world shaped by ideas, both embedded in technologies and embedded in policies and beliefs.

As the years went by, Hirschman turned increasingly to reading the classics of economics and the Enlightenment. As Adelman writes: “The pathway to recasting self-interest in a way that did not make it incompatible with the public good required going back centuries to the founding of its modern meaning.” His final book,

, is now at the top of my reading list. Although seen as a response to the politics of the Reagan era, Adelman argues that it should be read in a broader way as concerned with the kind of public discourse that sustains democracy. The rhetorical habits Hirschman describes in the book have not only become pretty pervasive, but are also amplified by online media. The state of civic discourse is a vital question in itself and because it shapes beliefs and therefore economic possibilities.

In these comments, I’ve picked up themes that interest me particularly, including the light cast on the state of economics.

has a lot for readers with other interests too, particularly development economics (I touched on this in an earlier post). It’s also the well-told life story of a fascinating and obviously charming man. Half way through 2013, I’m sure it’s going to be one of my books of the year.


3 thoughts on “Worldly Philosopher

  1. In a sense, there is a later book, 1995’s collection of essays “A Propensity to Self-Subversion” (Harvard UP). In it, he walks back part of “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” (exit and voice can be positively correlated, not just negatively correlated) and makes explicit that the bad rhetorical techniques in “The Rhetoric of Reaction” are also used by non-reactionaries, and are wrong there as well.

    • Yes, the biography notes that Hirschman always intended to defend the space for reform from “iron cast certainties” and extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but this was not appreciated by readers of the book initially.

  2. Thank you for having a review about the Wordly Philosopher.

    Mr. Albert O. Hirschman is a very inspiring person in business. And I know how to focus on ‘politics and the human behaviour that define the possibilities of economic choice.’

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