Optimistic Economics – Optimistic Life
“A niche thus exists for this book, which affirms that the choice is often between articulation and ‘desertion’ – voice and exit, in our neutral terminology.”
All through his book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Albert O. Hirschman has an underlying assumption that things can get better.
His theory is simple: When there is ‘slack’ in a company or an institution and the consumers/members react to it, they have two choices for returning the organization to its optimal performance. They can ‘exit’ or they can use their ‘voice’ to advocate for change.
In an interview with William Yardley, Albert O. Hirschman revealed that “even the most seemingly immutable, impossible situations could be solved, that you could change things that seemed unchangeable.”
In a very optimistic way, Hirschman carefully laid out the circumstances, options, pros, cons, and consequences of each strategy for changing the “objectionable state of affairs” in your organization – exit or voice. He also dealt with the difficulties of trying to combine them as a strategy. He understood how counter-intuitive reactions can be when loyalty is thrown into the mix. Loyalty will be one of the main causes of choosing voice over exit. Special cases can be made for monopolies, duopolies, and the two-party system. There are so many variables involved in the ways that consumers/members can communicate their dissatisfaction with the ‘slack’, but Hirschman laid out the explanations in a clear fashion, often using economic models in graphs and charts as helpful aids. In the end he points out that the optimal mix of exit and voice is elusive, “conditions are seldom favorable for the emergence of any stale and optimally effective mix of exit and voice.”
Of course loyalty can be a good and positive thing. But some attention was paid to the way that loyalty contributes to the reluctance for consumers to exit in spite of strong disagreements with the organization. The individual must believe that leaving the organization carries too high of a price tag.* Perhaps they think that the organization cannot make it without them. Or perhaps the member cares a great deal about the organization. Either way, it is interesting that Hirschman admits that his results on his chart illustrating “the choice between voice and exit as a function of members’ influence and attitude toward risk” may be changed because of loyalty.
I appreciate the optimism of Mr. Hirschman. I wish we all had the power or influence as individuals or groups to fix things. He certainly hit on something when he talked about loyalty. It touched something in me too, but maybe not what he was thinking of. He seems to assume that people have choices. But I am not sure everyone does.
It occurred to me that loyalty is one of the reasons given by the victims of domestic violence for staying with their abusers. I worked at S.A.B.L.E. House, a shelter for women, for 3 ½ years. Besides offering protection for the women, we also helped them get back on their feet with a job, housing, child care and medical attention. One of the saddest things for me was the number of women who went back to their abusers. *Apparently they thought that the price tag was too high. Some said, “he says he can’t make it without me.” Others said, “I love him and I know I can change him.” These women had the same reasons as the loyal consumer mentioned above.
How can we help a woman when she makes the choice to not exit? I suppose one way might be to follow Edwin Friedman’s advice and train her to “regulate …her own reactivity”. (p. 89) Or train her to “stop shifting blame”. I suppose we could say that the woman played a part in her abuse with her own bad behavior. Maybe this will be instrumental in turning some abusers around. But given the number of psychopaths out there who just plain don’t want to give up their power, I fear all of the pains taken by the woman to please the man will just be seen by him as his due. So some women will stay locked into the abusive relationship for a long time. For them exit or voice carries too many risks.
Ok, well that was the only thing about Hirschman’s wonderful book that gave me pause. I really, really liked the book and can see many benefits from his thought.
I think we can apply the principles of exit and voice to churches as well as other organizations. I’m faced with an exit or voice situation myself. I am staying at my church for now even though I have major disagreements with their ecclesiology. I can’t exit because my husband loves our church. I don’t have any more voice than any other women do. I have the cognitive dissonance that Mr. Hirschman points out. Do others? Why don’t they speak up? Perhaps it is because “provision is generally made in these organizations for expelling or excommunicating the individual member in certain circumstances.” Is the price tag too high for exit or voice?
However, I am taking my inspiration from the man who joined an insurgent army on the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. This indomitable fellow also joined the Resistance in France against the Nazis in WWII. Mr. Hirschman helped to rescue thousands of people. I thoroughly enjoyed reading a bit about his life as much as I enjoyed the book. He died in 2012 at the ripe young age of 97.
His optimism is infectious and I ain’t givin’ up yet.
 Albert O. Hirschman. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970). 31.
 Hirschman, p. 125.
 Hirschman, p. 132 – 136.
 Hirschman, P. 76.
 For more details of his thrilling life see the article from the New York Times referenced above.
6 responses to “Optimistic Economics – Optimistic Life”
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Great point Mary about the abused woman. I kept thinking about their voices and the double-binds they face in speaking up or exiting as well. Either way they risk their lives and sometimes they just opt to stay out of loyalty and ease. In working with women who decide to stay, I help them put down boundaries with consequences and this makes a huge difference in the relationship. It is so inspiring to see them move from the abused woman to the emowered woman as she learns to move from her victim position. But this is not the road for the weak. It takes every ounce of strength and courage for them to stay and change the tide in the relationship. Like you in your church, they are very brave women.
What a powerful application of Hirschman’s thesis. Voice, exit, and loyalty get dangerously blurred in a middle of a violent and abusive relationship. Mary, thank you for making that point and connection to our reading.
Mary I appreciate your application of the text in the lives of women whose voices are repressed/suppressed. It is sad and heart-breaking place to be in when there doesn’t seem to be a real choice. I was even moved by your personal application of where you are right now within your own church community. My hope and prayer is that you be able to have your voice heard, understood and respected. Your voice is powerful and needs to be heard and valued!
Thanks so much for the post – I appreciated your breakdown and the way you turned ‘loyalty’ around made me think and, as you say, gave me pause.
I think you are on to something about the way loyalty changes for those that feel like they don’t have the option to exit. I am going to have to think about that more.
I also love that you brought in Hirschman’s past as a resistance fighter…. which, as I was thinking about it is really an interesting combination of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’….. and at the same time, a show of loyalty to a higher calling and principal.
“The individual must believe that leaving the organization carries too high of a price tag.”
That “price tag”, I believe, is key. We may be dissatisfied with politics in America right now, but to leave our families, social connections, jobs, etc. and move to Norway– where we don’t know the language, have no job or friends, etc. would be a high price to pay.
You connected this so well, Mary, back to your own situation. As you put it, “I am staying at my church for now even though I have major disagreements with their ecclesiology. I can’t exit because my husband loves our church. I don’t have any more voice than any other women do.” That’s a challenging place to be. You, like Hirschman, have found creative ways to bear witness to resistance.
Bringing focus on women in abusive relationships was a great tribute to Domestic violence Month.
Women have and are still fighting the stereotypes that it was her fault. Even some of those in political power believe that and further wants to dig into her pain by allowing the rapist to have rights to raise the child. Really??
Our problem as women is that we are not on the same page. Many have the same views as the men.