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Review by Howard Cincotta

coverWorldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University Press, 2013, Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-691-15567-8, pp. 740, $30 Hardcover, $23.50 E-Book (Kindle/Nook).

Albert Hirschman (1915-2012) is probably the greatest economist you’ve never heard of, and Jeremy Adelman of Princeton University has given him a well-deserved and exhaustive biography that spans a remarkable life from Weimar and Nazi Germany to the post-Cold War era.

Hirschman was that rarity, an economist who wrote with grace and clarity, striving for Flaubertian mot justes to express what he called his petites idées, which actually contained very large and provocative concepts.

There are two reasons for Hirschman’s relative obscurity outside the profession. He began his career in the unforgiving waters of development economics and Latin America, where many bold economic models – and economists – have foundered. Second, Hirschman was, at bottom, an essayist whose literary models were Flaubert and Montesquieu; his work ranged far beyond conventional economics to encompass sociology, psychology, history, and philosophy. Yet within the field, Hirschman remains a revered figure who many feel long deserved the Nobel Prize for his insights and analyses of the complexities of international trade and national economic development.

Hirschman’s life can be divided into two great adventures, with the first containing enough drama and intrigue for a Hollywood movie, complete with a true love to whom he remained happily married for a lifetime.

He was born into an affluent assimilated Jewish family in Berlin who had the foresight and resources to escape following the Nazi takeover. After continuing his studies in France, Hirschman fought briefly in the Spanish Civil War, a scarring episode that he never shared with anyone, even his wife.

Hirschman was serving in the French Army, but saw no combat, when France fell in 1940. He found his way to Marseilles where, working with the Emergency Rescue Committee, he employed his considerable charm (his nickname was “Beamish”), facility with languages, and multiple-passport identities to help hundreds of refugees—many of them among Europe’s best-known artists and intellectuals—to escape occupied Europe. Hirschman then joined them and served as a U.S. Army interpreter during the war, later translating for an indicted Nazi war criminal at the Nuremburg trials.

After the war, Hirschman embarked on a peripatetic academic career, traveling and working extensively in Latin America and teaching institutions from Berkeley to Harvard. But his second, and greatest adventure was an intellectual one, especially after he landed a permanent position at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies and no longer had to teach (which he was terrible at, even if still widely admired by many of his students).

Hirschman’s early encounters with fascism and communism left him allergic to grandiose central plans and intellectual topologies of any kind. He was, instead, a contrarian who reveled in complexity and contradiction, the telling detail—at a time when most economists tended to lecture the Third World on how to follow the Western industrial path. Where mainstream economists preached balanced growth, for example, Hirschman suggested unbalanced growth, with its inevitable tensions and conflicts as a much more plausible and sustainable path.

Hirschman distanced himself from the hyped-up claims for Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress (more Cold War alliance than actual economic partnership for progress), but he also rejected the revolutionary dreams of Fidel Castro and other leftists. As someone who coined the term “possiblism,” he wrote that his purpose was “to break down the rigid dichotomy between reform and revolution and to show that the changes that occur in the real world are often something wholly outside these two stereotypes.”

He was equally contemptuous of the triumphalism and arrogance of 1950s and ‘60s economic and social planning for Latin America, and in subsequent decades, of the shift to defeatism and extremism when waves of inflation, guerilla war, repression, and murderous coups swept the region.

It was equally naïve and simplistic to say that “all good things go together,” such as democracy and prosperity, he argued, or the inverse, that all bad things, such as economic decline and human rights abuses, must connect to each other. Why do social scientists persist, he asked, “in thinking of having only thing happen, and everything will coalesce around it, and we’ll come out all right?” Why do “we have one ‘new key at a time’?”

By the 1970s, Hirschman began moving away from international economics to engage in what he called his “dialogue with the ancients.” It is no accident that his best-known book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organization, and States is a slim elegantly written volume that more closely resembles Montesquieu or Machiavelli than any equation-laden economic tome. The book didn’t simply layout a three-part formula (leave a dying organization, protest, or stick it out), but looked at the complexities of these human choices, always choosing to celebrate paradoxes and unintended side effects. He pointed out, for example, that the enticements of the exit option—and don’t we all wish for the grand declarative exit—might “atrophy the development of the art of voice.”

Hirschman’s deep readings in the classic texts of economics and political philosophy—Hegel, Marx, Hobbes, Adam Smith, among others—led to another major work, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph, which examined questions of how human beings function as both political and economic entities, as figures of self-interest who are also able to act in the common good, a balance crucial to sustaining any free and prosperous society.

In conclusion, Adelman writes:

What he stood for, fought for, and wrote for was a proposition that humans are improvable creatures. Armed with an admixture of daring humility, they could act while being uncertain and embrace alternatives without losing sight of reality. But for much of Hirschman’s century, this was heresy. What he wanted was not so much a theory with predictive powers, but a way to think about societies and economies, beginning with the premise that living in the world means we cannot step out of time to divine universal laws of human motion severed from the day-to-day banalities and mysteries of existence.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imageHoward Cincotta was a writer and editor with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) for more than 30 years. He worked on USIA magazines for Africa and the former Soviet Union and headed a special publications office that produced a wide range of print materials for international distribution. Cincotta later directed electronic media operations for USIA and IIP and has continued to write feature articles and speeches for the State Department.

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