The Albert Hirschman Bio

It is The Worldly Philosopher, by Jeremy Adelman. Tyler Cowen offers praise although he is only partly into it. I finished it, which is something I am guessing few others will do, although I imagine a lot of people will make some sort of attempt. My reactions:

1. Reading about Hirschman reminded me of my father. 1920′s Berlin and 1920′s St. Louis were both cities where assimilated German Jews tried to distance themselves from the more backward/traditional Russian Jews, and neither my father nor Hirschman identified with traditional Judaism. Hirschman grew up in an assimilated family (although the family covered up his father’s Ostjuden background), whereas my father’s parents were blatantly Polish-Russian and therefore embarrassing to him. Both Hirschman and my father had sisters who were staunch Communists, and both had their career opportunities limited in the McCarthy era. Both Hirschman and my father specialized in Latin America. Both lacked mathematical tools and instead relied on a broad-based humanistic approach, including psychology and literature. My guess is that their paths would have crossed had my father not deserted research for administration just as Hirschman’s career took off. Both were skeptical of universal laws in social science. One of my father’s favorite sayings was what he called the First Iron Law of Social Science: sometimes it’s this way, and sometimes it’s that way.

2. Success is contingent. It is easy to imagine Hirschman with a Nobel Prize. It is also easy to imagine him never emerging from obscurity. On p. 447, Adelman quotes Gordon Tullock’s scathing (we would now say snarky) review of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

clearly there is room in the literature for a 155-page book on the responses of customers to declining efficiency on the part of their suppliers, and on the differences between changes in quality and changes in price. Unfortunately, this is not the book.

As Adelman points out, Hirschman (unlike Tullock, I might add) left behind few disciples, much less a complete “school.”

3. Adelman develops the theme that much of Hirschman’s appeal was literary. Like a highbrow novelist, he gave the reader a sense of pride in being able to appreciate his word plays and allusions.

4. Perhaps Hirschman’s most admirable achievement was the one he liked least to discuss: his involvement in the black market in Marseilles in 1940 to extricate prominent Jews from Hitler’s Europe.

2 thoughts on “The Albert Hirschman Bio