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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Exit, Voice, and Bourbon

Absorbed in turning 50 years old last December, I missed the news of the death of A. O. Hirschman, whose accomplishment of 97 years of life should make me feel quite young still.  

Hirschman was perhaps best known for his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. In that book, Hirschman proposed that loyalty is an important but underexamined quality in market and social relationships. Loyalty, he thought, can slow decline not only by discouraging precipitous “exit” but also by making “voice” more creative and effective. Loyalty may thus be an important catalytic for what Dierdre McCloskey calls “sweet talk,” or that form of persuasive conversation that marks its participants out as willing co-participants in a civil socioeconomic order.

Maker’s Markup

Reflecting on Hirschman’s legacy, it seems ironic that I have been of late engaged in my own contest of exit, voice, and loyalty in regard to my preferred bourbon, Maker's Mark.  

Last year, inexplicably, the price for a 1.75 liter bottle of this particular distillation of Kentucky sunshine—though perhaps the corn may come from Iowa these days—increased by $5 per bottle. That’s about 14 percent. Not understanding the price spike, and finding it inconveniently consistent across all local liquor stores, I decided to have a taste testing for my birthday. I wanted to look for a bourbon with a similar palate, but that sold at a lower price. A few (perhaps several) sips, shots, and glasses later, it seemed that nothing really came close. (Rebel Yell turned out to be not a bad substitute in a pinch. At only about $19 for the large bottle, it’s a deal to consider.)

Having at least begun to contemplate exit by exploring my options, I was not yet ready to jump ship: I stuck with loyalty.

More Bourbon, Less Parsimony

A few weeks later, there came the announcement that Maker's Mark was going to water down its bourbon slightly to try to keep up with growing demand (seemingly from the rising popularity of bourbon in overseas markets). A brouhaha erupted. Voice, voice, voice—even from those who have probably never had a sip of the amber fireball. Add the media storm to the outcry from loyal fans and ambassadors (seriously, this bourbon has ambassadors!), and Maker's Mark cried mea culpa then reversed its decision.

In the midst of all this, I confess I was a free-rider on the voices of others. Perhaps I was still contemplating at some level an exit, but perhaps I had gone more deeply into my loyalty. To sort all this out, I found some assistance in another work of Hirschman, namely the lovely essay “Against Parsimony.” The article appeared in his Rival Views of Market Society and challenged economists to look more deeply at the way human preferences are formed and expressed.  

And this may shed some light on my decision to begin with a taste test:

A taste is almost defined as a preference about which you do not argue—de gustibus non est disputandum. A taste about which you argue, with others or yourself, ceases ipso facto being a taste—it turns into a value.  

In an argument that should be studied rather than merely quoted, Hirschman was asking whether economics can take account of the vast realm of human activity that is non-instrumental. “From their earliest origins,” Hirschman wrote, “men and women appear to have allocated time to undertakings whose success is simply unpredictable: the pursuit of truth, beauty, justice, liberty, community, friendship, love, salvation, and so on.”


This is the domain less of work than of what Hirschman called “striving—a term that precisely intimates the lack of a reliable relation between effort and result.” Others have called this “expressive” or “affective” activity, but whatever we call it, Hirschman called on us to contemplate the tensions not only between the passions and the interests, but also between self-interest and the civic spirit. 

And here he began to open up a path to contemplating civil society in the framework of economics:

Love, benevolence, and civic spirit neither are scarce factors in fixed supply nor do they act like skills and abilities that improve and expand more or less indefinitely with practice. Rather, they exhibit a complex, composite behavior: they atrophy when not adequately practiced and appealed to by the ruling socioeconomic regime, yet will once again make themselves scarce when preached and relied on to excess.
Perhaps herein is a dilemma of the modern interventionist quest for social justice. The more we require charity in the form of welfare transfers, for example, the less it is charitable. There are some things that cannot be established as instrumental ends of public bureaucracies and welfare states. These are things that must be spoken of but not preached or compelled, values to which people must be invited and attracted. Such things must be recognized as part of the domain of striving, a domain of activity that may enrich us beyond calculation, but in which the riches we enjoy can neither be piled up in the Lockean coins of Smaug, nor “equitably” distributed to all for all time.  

The domain of striving is one in which success is recognized less as profit than as blessing, something in which we have had a hand, but which has also been bestowed upon us as if by an invisible hand. Certainly Hirschman was onto something in telling us that the economics we have settled for has been far too parsimonious.

A Lesson Distilled

So, what does this all have to do with my bourbon? 

Well, it inspires me to continued loyalty—even if with a muted voice and retained right of exit. But moreso it elevates my thoughts beyond parsimony, to see in that sip of well-crafted and adequately proofed bourbon a non-instrumental world of valued connections to my Southern heritage, to the virtues and the sins of my fathers, to the good earth from which the corn sprouts, to the flowing branch of crisp water, and to the ingenuity of man in discovering the arts of distillation. 

It's rather as Walker Percy put it: Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.

When confronted with the gravity of cultural decline, the options of exit and voice invite us to contemplate how deep our loyalties run and why. This is a process that may be assisted by simply rocking on the porch with a drink in hand. In honor of Hirschman, I lift a toast.

  • Lenore Ealy is the executive director of The Philanthropic Enterprise, an interdisciplinary research institute exploring how philanthropy and voluntary social cooperation promote human flourishing. She is the founding editor of Conversations on Philanthropy:  Emerging Questions in Liberality and Social Thought and holds a Ph.D. in history from The Johns Hopkins University.