Rediscovering Albert Hirschman

By Kuttner, Robert | The American Prospect, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering Albert Hirschman


Kuttner, Robert, The American Prospect


Resistance fighter. Development economist. Philosopher. A new biography of the thinker who redeemed political economy for liberals.

To consider the life story of development economist turned moral philosopher Albert Hirschman is to appreciate that no other generation is likely to accumulate the experience of the European emigres to America who came of age just before World War II, survived it, and went on to contribute to the political and scholarly foundations of postwar civilization. Of that generation, nobody did so with more range and grace than Hirschman.

There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when Hirschman, who died last December at 97, enjoyed a wide general audience. But outside of academia, his works connecting economics and policies to core human values haven't made it into the canon of writings that educated people feel they need to read. The results of my informal survey suggest that even among teachers who admire him, Hirschman's work is invoked but not routinely assigned. This is a loss to our collective wisdom. We can hope that the publication of Jeremy Adelman's new biography, Worldly Philosopher, and the 2015 centenary of Hirschman's birth will rekindle interest.

Hirschman's life breaks roughly into three phases. He was born in Berlin in 1915 to a moderately affluent German Jewish family and entered university in the fateful year 1932, completing one semester before Jewish students were expelled by the new Hitler government. The journey to finish his studies took him to Paris and London and Trieste; he also served in the Spanish Civil War and the French underground, running an operation under the noses of the Gestapo that helped more than 2,000 anti-fascists escape over the Pyrenees. Hirschman, bearing forged documents under the nom de guerre Albert Hermant, was not yet 26. In 1941, he took the same route out and came to the United States.

After serving in the U. S. Army and trying to gain his professional footing, in 1951 he accepted an improbable offer from Colombia's National Planning Council to take up residence as a senior adviser. He relocated to Bogota with his family and spent much of his midlife either based in Latin America or regularly traveling there, earning admiration as an expert who went into the field and listened to locals and whose empirical approach transcended the usual left and right categories.

Had Hirschman's life ended in the late 1960s, he would be remembered as a development economist with a specialist audience. But in the third phase, he re-emerged as a modern philosophe. Beginning in 1970, he published a profusion of books and essays that crossed disciplinary boundaries, drawing on his fluency in five languages, integrating his far-flung experience and reading with his self-description as a trespasser. Above all, these works combined respectful attention to what was unique and particular about the subject at hand with a capacity to infer universal insights about human behavior and society.

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What linked Hirschman's early classical education and Latin American fieldwork to his later writings was an appreciation of human complexity. In his 1984 essay "Against Parsimony" (a characteristically playful title), he writes, "Economists often propose to deal with unethical or antisocial behavior by raising the cost of that behavior rather than by proclaiming standards. ... They think of citizens [only] as consumers. ... This view tends to neglect the possibility that people are capable of changing their values." Economic orthodoxy ignores the trait of self-evaluation.

Others have criticized the one-dimensional view of homo economicus but none with Hirschman's wit and dazzling gift for forging connections. Yet he was sufficiently esteemed in his own profession that a revised, gentler version of this essay, like others of his, was published in the flagship American Economic Review, where the typical article has more algebra than text. …

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