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Albert Hirschman 1915-2012

Albert Hirschman died in December of last year at the grand old age of 97. I never had the pleasure of meeting him but I was an avid reader of his writings and much influenced by them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as the field of economic development emerged within economics, there was a debate between the advocates of balanced growth or the across-the-board big push internalizing all the demand-side externalities – and its critics. As a graduate student at MIT in the 50s I took a course on economic development – one of the first taught at least in the U.S. – from Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, the leading proponent of the big push. Teaching Canadian economic history at Toronto from 1958, I read Hirschman’s Strategies of Economic Development, where he makes an eloquent case that economic development takes place most easily around linked activities which entrepreneurs can take advantage of. In the study of economic history this made a lot of sense, and by marrying Innis’ staple theory with Hirschman’s linkages I came up – 50 years ago this year, it so happens – with the staple theory of economic growth, an event from which some would say I never recovered.

Hirschman went on to do many things: notably an article on loyalty, exit (economics) and voice (politics), and a marvelous book-length essay on “passions and interests” in emerging economic thought, culminating in Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Long though he lived and much that he wrote, he was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, but that tells us more, I think, about the narrowness of the prize than it does about Hirschman.

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Comments

Comment from Thomas Bergbusch
Time: January 28, 2013, 1:32 pm

Great post. Hirschman is one of those rare economics writers who by his insights triggers in the reader wave after wave of (seemingly) new ideas. I have loved his stuff since a Prof. put me on to Development Projects Observed and the hiding hand (truly a brilliant notion, representing a phenomenon that anyone who has worked in the public sector will recognize).

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