Hirschman and American religious beliefs

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The concept of Exit and Voice

3. Exit in the American Ideology and Practice

4. Roots of American religious beliefs

5. American religious beliefs today

6. Radical religious individualism and the Exit option

7. Summary

8. References

1. Introduction

In his most important contribution to political economy Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert O. Hirschman describes two essential options for responding to decline in firms, organisations and states. He argues, generally spoken, that discontented customers and members may react by choosing either exit or voice. In a few words, exit means to leave the scene once problems have emerged while voice means to stick with a difficult situation and try to solve it from within. Although, Hirschman primarily investigates the reaction of customers/members in the case of decline in quality of a product/a service of a firm/an organisation, his analysis demonstrates that his concept is applicable not only to commercial enterprises and political organisations but also to a wide variety of communities such as families, religious groups or nations. In this spirit, he also examines American ideology for those two recuperation mechanisms, exit and voice.[1] As it is outlined beneath, his investigations suggest that “exit has been accorded an extraordinary privileged position in the American tradition.”[2]

In his analysis, Hirschman also states a convincing explanation for this priority. He explains that exit is an intrinsic recuperation mechanism typical of US Americans. Thus, he draws a quite coherent picture of American ideology and practice, where economy, politics, and social behaviour are based upon the preference for exit over voice. While this preference is especially plausible in the realm of economy, Hirschman also demonstrates that American social phenomena such as individual mobility, significant income disparity or national patriotism can be derived form the particular favour of American thought upon exit. Hirschman himself, however, does not link this theory to such an important and decisive issue as religion. That is, he does not seek for a connection between exit -ideology and characteristics of American religious beliefs. Even though, religion did not only play an outstanding role in the epoch in which he locates the nascence of exit as a preferred recuperation mechanism of American ideology, but also today religion still has an important position both in civil society and in political thought.

The purpose of this paper is to make up for this lack to some extent, i.e. to find out whether there is a link to discover between those two ideas, the exit -ideology and American faith. In other words, could the recuperation mechanism of exit be connected somehow with the American religious belief system as it has evolved and as it prevails today? In order to respond to this question it is necessary first to give a short recapitulation of Hirschman’s theory of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty and a summary of the application of his theory on the American ideology. Finally, an outline of the typical traits of American denominations will follow.

2. The concept of Exit and Voice

Hirschman’s theory is based on the observation that “human societies are marked by the existence of a surplus above subsistence”.[3] However, the surplus is not only the origin of increasing economic progress and welfare but is also the source of the “society’s ability to take considerable deterioration in its stride”.[4] In other words, social or economical progress is by no means a one-way development. Slack with regard to the performance of firms or organisations is, according to Hirschman, a natural phenomenon in surplus-producing societies. He “assumes not only that slack has somehow come into the world and exists in given amounts, but that it is continuously being generated as a result of some sort of entropy characteristic of human (…) societies”.[5] At a first glance, such reasoning considerably challenges classical economics, in which slack is defined as a failure of a system caused by deflection from the model of perfect competition, rather than as a natural phenomenon that is inherent to the system. However, precisely stated, Hirschman’s theory rather complements those classical theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo or Stuart Mill. For Hirschman does not doubt that the incentives of perfect competition lead to a taut economy; where every individual is motivated to perform at the top of his form. Instead, he tries to investigate the wide ranges of economy and society where the model of perfect competition does not apply. This is very much justified, considering that perfect competition is “a purely theoretical construct with little reality-content”.[6]

Once it has been accepted that there is some latitude for deterioration, it is also evident that some sort of recuperation mechanism ought to exist in order to bar decline as well as to initiate recovery. According to Hirschman: “[The] radical pessimism, which views decay as an ever-present force constantly on the attack, generates its own cure: for as long as decay (…) is hardly in undisputed command everywhere and at all times, it is likely that the very process of decline activates certain counterforces”.[7] Hirschman separates those counterforces into two contrasting categories of recuperation mechanisms; exit and voice, which represent two opposite extremes. The difficult choice between them is so essential that it is easily explained through a song title of The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Exit alias “go” means that customers choose the option to stop buying a product or using a service as a result of quality decline. The corresponding act of a member of an organisation is to resign from membership and leave the organisation if he feels disgruntled with the management’s performance. Hence, the exiting consumer or member pursuits the goal to reduce his discontent by ‘leaving the scene’ and looking for a substitute product or service. He consequently does not care about the performance of the firm or organisation after his exit and shows neither interest nor motivation to help with its retrieval. The person or body responsible, i.e. the management finds out about its failings indirectly by dropping revenue or declining membership. However, the result of exit can be directly measured in terms of quantity, and for that reason, incontrovertible. In order to stop exit, the management is expected to be severely impelled to search for means of recuperation. Voice alias “stay” means to express, in case of decline, dissatisfaction directly to the management of the firm or the organisation while remaining a client of the company or a member of the organisation at least for the time being. The goal of the voice option is to achieve recuperation from within by uttering informative criticism directly to the persons in charge. Thus, customers and members resorting to voice provide the management with reasons for decline unlike in the case of exit. Contrary to exit, the voice option is a much less neat reaction, for it includes vastly different degrees of activity. However, voice should normally become more intensive if quality suffers a further decline. Because the customer or member is not leaving, in the short run, the voice option seems to be less fatal to the company or organisation in case of deterioration of performance than exit.


[1] In this paper the terms America and American refer throughout to the United States of America.

[2] Hirschman (1970:106) The italics are mine.

[3] Hirschman (1970:6)

[4] ibid.

[5] Hirschman (1970:15) Italics according to the original wording.

[6] Hirschman (1970:9)

[7] Hirschman (1970:15)

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Hirschman and American religious beliefs
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Hirschman, American, Political, Thought, United, States
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Dipl.-Volkswirt (BA) Oliver Heiden (Author), 2007, Hirschman and American religious beliefs, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/75424


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