PRINCETON – Albert Hirschman, who died at the end of last year, was a great economist with a gift for producing striking insights by focusing on an element of observable behavior as a way to transform our view of a whole range of particular problems. One of his most far-ranging insights was his framework of “exit, voice, and loyalty.”
Originally formulated after an experience with poor trains in West Africa, Hirschman realized that if a complex social system allowed people to leave (exit), its efficiency might deteriorate; a better solution would be to retain people (loyalty), which would give them incentives to articulate demands (voice) that would improve the system’s performance.
It is easy to see how this theory can be applied to personal relations. Marriages break down if divorce (exit) is too easy; but also become unbearable if there is no sense of mutuality and discussion (voice). Voice may also decrease if new possibilities emerge: a new potential partner means that there is no longer any pressure to discuss and improve relations within the existing arrangement.
The schema might also be applied to political relations: Hirschman wrote a memorable article showing how the ability to exit East Germany in 1989 produced a sudden breakdown of loyalty.