Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Albert Hirschman on the unrealized effects of social decisions

The death of Albert Hirschman prompts me to interrupt the break to quote a couple of passages from his The Passions and the Interests. First, from p.117:
In an old and well-known Jewish story, the rabbi of Krakow interrupted his prayers one day with a wail to announce that he had just seen the death of the rabbi of Warsaw two hundred miles away. The Krakow congregation, though saddened, was of course much impressed with the visionary powers of their rabbi. A few days later some Jews from Krakow traveled to Warsaw and, to their surprise, saw the old rabbi there officiate in what seemed to be tolerable health. Upon their return they confided the news to the faithful and there was incipient snickering. Then a few undaunted disciples came to the defense of their rabbi; admitting that he may have been wrong on the specifics, they exclaimed: "Nevertheless, what vision!"

Ostensibly this story pours ridicule on the human ability to rationalize belief in the face of contrary evidence. But at a deeper level it defends and celebrates visionary and speculative thought no matter if such thought goes astray. It is this interpretation that makes the story so pertinent to the episode in intellectual history that has been related here. The Montesquieu-Steuart speculations about the salutary political consequences of economic expansion were a feat of imagination in the realm of political economy, a feat that remains magnificent even though history may have proven wrong the substance of those speculations.
I wish I could quote the ensuing discussion in toto. There is a bit on pp.130-31, however, that is too good not to quote. Here Hirschman contrasts the "unintended effects of human actions," for which social scientists are often on the lookout, with intended effects that never occur:
Curiously, the intended but unrealized effects of social decisions stand in need of being discovered even more than those effects that were unintended but turn out to be all too real: the latter are at least there, whereas the intended but unrealized effects are only to be found in the expressed expectations of social actors at a certain, often fleeting, moment of time.
What's more, the original expectations that are not borne out are 
likely to be not only forgotten but actively repressed. This is...essential if the succeeding power holders are to be assured of the legitimacy of the new order: what social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so?
And there is a further consideration here. Writing in 1977*, Hirschman noted that "no twentieth-century observer" (p. 118) could maintain that the Montesquieu-Steuart view -- i.e., that commerce would have a peace-inducing, "gentling" effect on politics within and among nation-states, a view by the way that Marx (predictably) ridiculed (see p.62) -- had been vindicated by events, although Hirschman added that "the failure of the [Montesquieu-Steuart] vision may well have been less than total" (p.118). Fast forward to 2012. How does the Montesquieu-Steuart position look now? Perhaps somewhat better than it did thirty-five years ago? Or perhaps not.
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*[note added 12/15/12]: The book was published in '77 so the words were actually written earlier, and in the acknowledgments Hirschman says he wrote a first draft of the book in 1972-73. But nothing of consequence turns on the timing, at least as far as this post is concerned.     

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