Thursday, August 19, 2021

The possibilists’ compass: the overlapping trajectories of Hirschman and Sen

In the last few weeks I have been reading the biography of Albert O. Hirschman (written by Jeremy Adelman –and reviewd by Claus Offe here) and the autobiography of the first part of the life of Amartya Sen. It’s been a nice way to get inspiration for the course I will teach on introductory economics (using the materials of the CORE Project) in a new degree on Contemporary History, Politics and Economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona starting in September.

In several ways, the lives and ideas of Hirschman and Sen overlap. Sen married Hirschman’s niece, Eva Colorni (who died relatively young) the daughter of Ursula Hirschman and the Italian Eugenio Colorni, a socialist politician and scientist, and a person that Hirschman admired and who was killed by fascists at the end of the Second World War, after being one of the authors of the Ventotene Manifesto for a Federal Europe. Hirschman dedicated his most famous book, “Exit, Voice and Loyalty…” to the memory of Colorni. 

Sen “inherited” the office of Hirschman at Harvard (as if passing the baton), and later they became friends and relatives. Sen wrote a foreword to another of the great books of Hirschman “The Passions and the Interests”, and, when Hirschman had already passed away, Sen received in 2016 the “Albert Hirschman Prize” awarded by the Social Science Research Council.

Hirschman had an amazing young life. As a member of the youth of Germany’s Social Democracy, and as a jew, he was in danger when Hitler took power, and left for Paris in 1933. There he got in touch with Italian anti-fascists such as Colorni, and with some of them he spent some weeks fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War in the front of Aragon. He studied economics in Paris and Trieste (although he never studied a conventional PhD), and in the Second World War he ran clandestine operations in Marseilles to help refugees flee to the US. He migrated to America, married a woman from Russian origin, Sarah, just to immediately enlist in the US army (probably to obtain the US citizenship) to go to Africa and Europe when the Americans joined the Allied effort. When the war finished, he went back to the US, and was in the administration involved in the Marshall plan for Europe. He perhaps could have had more important positions in the US government, but the FBI opened a file for him due to his past left-wing activities. The rest of his very productive life is a measure of the opportunity cost of all those intelligent people that spend time in positions of power (something Hirschman could probably have done in the absence of the FBI file). He started a new life as an advisor of developing countries' governments and firms, first in Colombia and later in other Latin American countries, an activity that he combined with appointments at some of the best US universities (Berkeley, Columbia, Yale, Harvard –where he felt closer to young radical scholars such as Bowles, rather than to more established academics, Stanford and Princeton). He developed there an impressive intellectual trajectory as author of books and articles, although he hated teaching –which provoked vomits and diarrhea to him. Michele Alacevich has just published an intellectual biography (this is for homework) describing the broad scope of his contributions to international trade, development, political economy and economic thought.

Sen learned from a young age about the dangers of exciting identity feelings and of not addressing inequalities, poverty and famines. He was traumatized by the partition between India and Pakistan and by the artificially encouraged divisions between Muslims and Hindus. He has a deep knowledge of secular and religious traditions in India and Asia that promote peace, multiple identities and dialogue. He was born in a well educated middle class family and he attended a progressive school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. He completed his economic studies in Cambridge (England) where he established a fruitful dialogue with marxist (such as the Italian Piero Sraffa), keynesian and neoclassical economists. His autobiography tells how seriously he took marxist ideas, regretting the lack of detail of Marx' political proposals, which left the door open for the atrocities of Stalinism. His discussion of such ideas includes a very good explanation of the tension between the ideal of “to each according with their needs, from each according to their ability,” and the requirement of incentives for productive activity. A difference with Hirschman is that Amartya Sen loved teaching from the times he gave lessons to illiterate children in India as an activist.

Both scholars are more foxes than hedgehogs and not only have covered many topics in economics, but they also have done it in a truly multidisciplinary way, contributing also to other “fields” like political science or philosophy. They are believers in a unified social science, in dialogue with other branches of knowledge. Both are in favor of reform and not revolution, egalitarians and democrats aware of the importance and value of individual freedom, and at the same time of the limits of national sovereignty.

Their work has in common that at least a great part of it can be interpreted as trying to optimistically react to “impossibility” results in economic theory, that were perhaps too influential in political ideologies. Hirschman work on Exit and Voice can be read as an answer to the idea of Mancur Olson that the free rider problem is pervasive and makes it impossible to sustain collective action of almost any type. Most of the work of Sen can be interpreted as a positive reaction to the work of his friend Kenneth Arrow, who in his famous theorem established that there was no system of preference aggregation (collective choice, for example through voting rules) that satisfied a minimum list of desirable attributes. Sen believed for example that public discussion and reasoning, and persuasion, should also be considered beyond just taking note of individual exogenous preferences, in a similar way as “Voice” in Hirschman. They thought that collective action and social choice were possible; perhaps not perfect, but not as impossible as to make tiranny or chaos inevitable.

Besides having a strong knowledge of contemporary economic ideas and being a gifted writer, Hirschman had a strong experience as a practitioner, and a very solid knowledge of classical thinkers in political economy and philosophy. He was aware of his limitations using mathematical techniques, although the concentration index that bears his name (and, apparently unfairly, Herfindahl’s) is one of the more used mathematical formulas in applied work and policy. Sen had a more conventional training as an academic economist (he obtained a PhD from Cambridge University) and as a mathematician, having also a solid background in history and philosophy. Sen was awarded the Nobel prize (in 1998) in Economics, for which Hirschman was probably considered at some point. It’s difficult to separate their very productive intellectual work from the progressive values and ideals that they acquired in their youth. Learning about their trajectories, one only feels sorry for those that believe that economics should not be polluted by politics and activism. As with any scholar, their work is open to scrutiny and criticism (for example, see Flyvbjerg on Hirschman’s principle of the Hiding Hand), but this is just how knowledge makes progress, and the fact that the debate continues on their ideas illustrates their importance. Their combined lives encompassed more than one century (Hirschman was born in 1915 and Sen is still alive) and four continents. It’s impossible to do everything in only one life. It probably takes two extraordinary lives to make the almost perfect scholar.

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