Earth, receive an honoured guest. In Memory of Albert O. Hirschman

Lyon. 12 December 2012. A personal tribute for my friends and family.

Albert HirschmanThe news came in the middle of the night in the cold winter of Lyon. My professor and life example Albert Hirschman has left us. And I am finally very glad, because those last few years of illness were far too harsh for any man or woman to bear.

I have a hard time in organizing my thoughts this cold morning, but two things I do know and would like to share with you. The first being that Albert Hirschman was a great man and a huge influence in the field that he had chosen for his own, economics in the broadest sweep of the term.  And well beyond that.

He marked me for life. In fact when I read and listened to Professor Hirschman as his seriously underperforming doctoral student in the Graduate Faculties of Columbia years ago, and later for many years as friend, what struck me from the very beginning was the brilliant sweeping manner in which he treated our field, as did all the early greats in our field, from Adam Smith on, as above all  an exercise in moral philosophy. Somehow in the overheated field of mainstream economics today, this fundamental seems to have been sadly lost. Ans we do not have to look far to see the results of this not so benign neglect.

The idea of trespassing is basic to my thinking. Attempts to confine me to a specific area make me unhappy.  When it seems that an idea can be verified in another field, then I am happy to venture in this direction. I believe this is a simple and useful way of discovering ‘related’ tropics.”

- Remark he made in a 1993 autobiographical interview with Carmine Donzelli.

I have little difficulty in understanding why the Nobel Economic Sciences Prize Committee failed repeatedly to name him for his enormous and original contributions. The key to this terrible neglect — because the Prize does set a template for young economists all over the world — lies in that word “science”. This easily spouted word conveys a feeling of total exactness and unarguability.

But look around and you can readily see that the real world of economics cannot solely be entirely reduced to a bunch of calculations based on this or that mental model, no matter how shiny and impressive it may be. This seems to have escaped the attention and indeed the understanding of the Committee. But it did not escape the attention of Albert O. Hirschman. Or others who profited from his example.

Albert Hirschman deserves a Nobel Prize in economics.  His early work on the unbalanced nature of economic development was pathbreaking.  The Rhetoric of Reaction is a brilliant study in intellectual self-deception.  As a historian of thought he integrates wonderfully, such as in his study of how commerce shapes mores. But he would win the Prize for focusing the attention of economists and political scientists on the phenomenon of voice: the ability of consumer or voter complaints to induce improvements in supply. (Prof. Tyler Cowan, Economist. George Mason University in 2006)

As you will see abundantly in all the articles and tributes that will appear in the coming days, Albert Otto Hirschman was a complete man, a Man of Parts. Thinker, writer, teacher, mentor, keen-eyed observer, husband, father, at discrete ease in a wide range of cultures and languages, persistently curious, open to new ideas and thinking, great lover of music, the arts and literature, brave down to the marrow of his bones.  And above all a shining example for our youth, for our leaders and for our citizens who know that a well working democracy cannot be made without an active and ever observant civil society.  Voice. Voice. Voice!

In the tributes that will follow in the days ahead, in case you did not know it, you will learn that he was not just a great economist and thinker. He was also a true hero. As a young German Jew he volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic, then stepped forward as a volunteer in the totally outclassed French Army, and later when the victorious German army took over much of France (all of it really, but that another day) he worked subversively on an “underground railway” with Varian Fry and others, which offered help for many intellectuals, artists, and Jews, seeking to make their way out of Germany, through France and on to America or anyone who would safely have them in those terrible days.

In France there were ordinary people who in the hardest days of Vichy and the Second World War were brave enough to risk their lives to protect and save Jews and others being sought out for deportation and worse by the Nazis.  These people, these heroes are called in French “Les Justes” or the Righteous.  Albert Hirschman was surely a Juste and may we never forget it.  Nor should France, the United States, Germany and Israel.  Now is the time to honor this great man.

We live in an age in which we badly need heroes. So pick up some of his books — including the now famous Exit, Voice and Loyalty and read it not only as a economic treatise on its subtitle “Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States”.  But as you make your way through those three options he sets out  for action under aversity — run away, say what you think, or bend to the pressure — and that any of us faces when confronted with situations in which we find ourselves as part of some larger than us entity that is demonstrably doing “the wrong thing” — if you put your ear to the ground you can hear the jackboots of an invading army and the hard choices that he and others had to face and deal with.

But please do not stop there. Professor Hirschman has left us a rich heritage, several dozen excellent and orignal books and hundreds of articles.  From his early classic “The Strategy of Economic Development” published in 1958 to his late (1995) “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy” which stares unblinkingly  in the  eye the conservative agenda in many parts of the world and their persistent attempt  to systematically impede and subvert any attempt to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order in the interests of all.

He left us his books.  So when we sit down in the quiet of our homes on a peaceful day and read Hirschman in the years ahead we will hear the voice of a wise and to many of us a dear friend.  Albert Hirschman is gone, but with his books and our memories we  have his voice still there for us to continue to  hear. . . and learn from.  And perhaps too  to learn from his example,  to be brave.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

Albert Hirschman, this man, this hero, this model is dead.  And as Auden said of Yeats in the dark days as World War II was looming, the day of his death was a dark cold day.

I am very sad and unable to go on this morning. But when I read the news in the middle of last night, a small voice sad to me: Remember Auden on Yeats. Let me share this with you.  You will see how it fits.

__________________________________________________

In Memory of W. B. Yeats

by W. H. Auden

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day

# # #

The Albert O. Hirschman Prize

is awarded annually by the Social Science Research Council to scholars who have made outstanding contributions to international, interdisciplinary social science research, theory, and public communication, in the tradition of German-born American economist Albert Hirschman.

Thank you.

Eric Britton, Lyon. 12 December 2012

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