Wordly Philosopher

This is the title of a recently published biography of Albert Hirschmam by Jeremy Adelman, a Canadian who teaches history at Princeton University. Hirschman’s life as an economist – which spanned so much of the 20th century – is worth learning about for it makes us think hard about what has happened to economics over those years and what it means to be more an intellectual than a technician.

Born in Germany, exposed to both Marxism and fascism, Hirschman became deeply suspicious of ideologies, of grand theories, of revolution and utopia, of those who claimed to know the answers with certainty. He distrusted “experts.” He was committed to the possible, to reform and, at least in that sense it seems to me, shared a commitment with those of us who label ourselves progressive economists. Though he had undergraduate training in accounting and statistics, he was suspicious of mathematics in economic theorizing because it implied a preciseness, and a lack of interest in history and the humanities. For Hirschman, says Adelman, the divide between the social sciences and literature was unfortunate and telling: he gave up “formal mathematical measurements in favor of a lyrical style.”

Hirschman very much deplored the draining of the political – an understanding of power – out of what had originated as political economy and was reduced to economics. He once described himself as “a hyphen between economics and political science” – a status for which we should all strive. It’s my impression that Hirschman receives more attention from political scientists than he does from economists and we are the poorer for that.

What is striking is Hirschman’s failure to relate to Keynes – or, perhaps more accurately Keynesianism – who was, after all, the greatest economist of his time. It was the pretension of fine-tuning by American economists in the 1960s that seems particularly to have repelled Hirschman, but perhaps Keynes would have likewise rejected that variant of Keynesianism which Joan Robinson called bastard Keynesianism.

What impressed me from learning much more about Hirschman’s thinking from this book was the similarities to Innis, particuarly with respect to Keynesianism. We could perhaps agree that they went too far and paid a price for what they would not come to terms with by being read out of the profession, but that we have much to learn by realizing how much was lost at the same time and needs to be retrieved.

When it mattered, Hirschman could certainly be political. An assimilated Jew, he had the prescience to flee Hitler’s Germany early on. He fought in Spain agaist fascism. He worked assiduously in Vichy France to help Germans who had fled there to find refuge in the U.S. He opposed the War in Vietman. At Harvard, he was a supporter of the young radical economist Sam Bowles, and was most unhappy when he was denied tenure. Hirschman believed in a discipline with breadth but he was a lonely voice and not just at Harvard, (The University of Toronto, notwithstanding its Department of Political Economy, could be added to a long list increasingly diligent in its literal disciplining of economists.)

Adelman shows how Hirschman wanted economists to be public intellectuals who would help the citizen “to imagine alternatives without making them impossible.”
In Hirschman’s famous taxonomy of exit, loyalty and voice, the role of intellectuals is to be (in Adelman’s felicitous phrase) “the guardians of voice, even in the moments of its atrophy or disfavor.” It’s a heavy demand to make of economists whose methodolgy privileges exit and whose deference to power manifests loyalty – and at a time when the university as corporation does not see itself as a public space serving the public interest and measures success by what can be quantified, like the dollar value of research grants and publication in an arbitrary list of refereed journals.


  • These days, “intellectual” is a dirty word.

  • Hi Mel — thanks for the thoughtful review. Not sure if you’ll see this, or if you’d recall that I took a course with you at U of T on the Canadian political economy. Nice to see the staple theory getting its airtime!


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