Sunday, July 31, 2011

Exit, Voice, and Legitimacy: Responses to Domination in Political Thought

Albert O. Hirschmann’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States is a “generative” book: the ideas it contains are deceptively simple but enormously fruitful. The book starts from the premise that individuals faced with a “decline” in service or performance from an organization (including a state) can either “exit” (switch to a different product, move to a different jurisdiction, etc.) or exercise their “voice” (complain, vote, protest, etc.), and that the degree to which they will opt for exit over voice depends in part on their “loyalty” to the organization. What makes the book interesting is Hirschmann’s detailed exploration of the complex and sometimes counterintuitive interactions between exit, voice, and loyalty: e.g., how the threat of exit can make voice more effective, and yet actual exit often undermines its effectiveness, or how exit can serve as a signal to activate certain forms of voice (as in Hirschmann’s analysis of the fall of the GDR, extended and refined in Steven Pfaff’s excellent Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of the GDR).

Anyway, this is probably utterly obvious, but it occurs to me that Hirschmann’s conceptual framework can be used to make sense of some important features of contemporary political thought. In particular, to the extent that contemporary political thought conceptualizes the key political problem not as a problem of performance (pace Hirschmann) but as a problem of domination (how should we think and what should we do about the fact that some people appear to dominate others?), specific positions will tend to emphasize one or another of the three Hirschmannian “mechanisms” for dealing with it. Thus, “right-liberals” (libertarians, but also others) tend to focus on exit as the most important component of a solution to this problem, “left-liberals” (and many other leftists who would abhor the label “liberal,” but I want to leave these aside) tend to focus on voice, and “conservatives” tend to focus on legitimacy.[1]

To me, this framework makes sense of many features of contemporary theoretical (and not-so-theoretical) debates, at least those I more or less follow. For example, right-liberals (from Nozick and Friedman to so many others) are especially attracted to markets as solutions to political problems in great part because they think that whenever such markets work well, they enable some people to escape from particular relations of potential domination: to leave jobs, or to switch products, or to escape oppressive social conditions, etc. The competitive market functions here as an ideal of exit, even if actually existing markets do not always work as advertised. Similarly, where left-liberals typically prefer to tackle domination within markets by encouraging unionization and other forms of organized voice, like worker-controlled enterprises (see, e.g., Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice), right-liberals might prefer to make the costs of exiting relations of domination smaller by lowering barriers to employment (so that people who quit have other options). Thus, at the extreme, many right-liberals are fairly comfortable with “private” governments not because they are secret authoritarians, as some people on the left might argue, but because private governments are typically predicated on easy exit: if you don’t like it, you can leave. (Many right-liberals tend to tie “legitimacy” to the possibility of exit: a relationship is legitimate when it does not unduly close off the possibility of exit). Domination, from this point of view, is captivity, and freedom is primarily understood as the ability to exit a relationship.

By the same token, left-liberals (and other people on the left, though not all) are often far more enamoured of democracy than the dinghy realities of actually-existing democracies would seem to warrant, with their refractory electorates, poor quality deliberations, capture by organized minorities, etc. This is not necessarily because they are blind to their failings, but because their default solution to the problem of domination is to increase voice more consultation, more deliberation, more organized representation, and the like. They find voice itself desirable, and understand freedom partly in such terms: to be dominated is to have no means of affecting the direction of a relationship, to be voiceless, and to be free is to have input into the relationship, to have a say, which in turn legitimates a relationship. (If you don't like it, you can complain, or vote, or otherwise "make your voice heard"). And so left-liberals tend to look on exit-based solutions suspiciously, rightly understanding (as Hirschmann noted) that unrestricted exit typically undermines voice, and prefer to strengthen institutions of voice, even if these do not always work so well. Democracy is the normative ideal of voice, just as competitive markets are the normative ideal of exit.

The conservative response to domination is best seen as an attribute of other responses. Whether a person favours exit or voice in general as a response to domination, a more conservative position will typically understand existing relations of domination to be more legitimate than a less conservative position. But to the extent that there is a distinctively conservative response to illegitimate domination, it tends to stress the need to legitimate the relationship in question. This may involve increasing voice or enabling exit, but it may also involve changing other aspects of a relationship: domination can be legitimate, for the true conservative, even when there is otherwise no possibility of exit or voice, so long as the right people are in charge, or the right rules are applied, or the right procedures have been followed, etc. (Some of the “natural law theorists” around Robert George might fit this sort of characterization; but generally speaking true “conservatism” in this sense is harder to find today than one might think). Of course, the conservative response in this sense may be at odds with the conservatism of one’s position: it is, after all, possible to think that existing relations of domination are almost wholly illegitimate (and so ought to be changed), but for reasons having little to do with the possibility of exit or voice within the relationship (e.g., one may think that the wrong people are in charge; this is the Platonic position).

I do not want to make too much of this scheme. Whether one thinks that exit or voice (or legitimacy) is the right response to domination in a given situation may depend on any number of factors, such as one’s estimates of the costs of exit, the value of the community affected, the different organizational requirements of enabling exit rather than voice, and so on. (Consider: it is generally agreed today that people in abusive relationships should be given the option of exit rather than voice, since it is generally thought that voice is pointless in these circumstances). But I think that “left” and “right” strands of (broadly liberal) thought often differ in the extent to which they tend to value exit over voice or vice-versa as responses to domination: there is a style of reasoning and a constellation of theoretical commitments that favour one response over another. Left-liberals typically see high costs of exit and value group solidarity in ways that they would prefer not to undermine by promoting exit. Right-liberals, by contrast, typically see many pathologies in arrangements of collective voice and tend to more heavily discount the value of existing group solidarity. I suspect this is partly a matter of temperament and circumstance: some people seem to be “exit” people, some “voice” people (e.g., some of my relatives, when they receive bad service in a restaurant, will complain and demand their money back; I will just stop patronizing the place), just as some people seem more “conservative” than others, for whatever reasons, and these propensities may lead them to sort themselves into patterns of political thought. It may also have something to do with one’s particular circumstances; if one cannot imagine leaving a place and starting out elsewhere, or if one’s “exit” options are extremely costly, one may come to think that voice is generally the right response to domination, whereas highly mobile people with many “exit” options may come to think that exit is usually the right sort of response to domination. (And political debates may shift to left or right over time depending on whether people see themselves as fitting into one or the other category).

But this is all extremely speculative. The point of looking at domination through this sort of framework, in the end, is less to sort people into categories than to consider the interesting interactions between exit and voice, since it is clear that most of us do not see domination exclusively through either lens. Domination is both captivity and voicelessness, and freedom is both the ability to leave and the ability to talk, though we disagree about the balance between these two aspects in given situations, as well as about the legitimacy of existing relationships of domination.  But, if we look at the interaction of exit and voice, we might sometimes come to surprising conclusions, just as Hirschmann did in his book. For example, we may come to see how exit and voice can be mutually reinforcing in the struggle against some forms of domination, but mutually undermining in other cases. Any thoughts?

[1] I use these names to indicate primarily theoretical commitments, not practical ones; in practice, who counts as “liberal” or as “conservative” in existing political debates is hardly as clear, and sometimes may be entirely dependent on temporary alliances and “tribal” affiliations. I am also talking only about the face value of these theoretical commitments; obviously any position claiming to talk about the problem of domination can be appropriated for less than noble ends by clever enough political entrepreneurs, though not always without costs.


  1. A minor issue: your footnote directs to rather than this post.

    "and yet actual exit often undermines its effectiveness"
    I remember that, although I did not find any of his examples convincing.

    I think libertarians are more conscious of the importance of exist, while many liberals don't fundamentally disagree but want to improve the options or "positive liberty" of people through state intervention. The people most enamored of voice may be the theorists of "deliberative democracy", who are something of a minority so libertarians don't always explicitly grapple with their ideas. An exception is Mark Pennington.

    Part of the reason I favor exit is that I'm not very confrontational. I view it as a mostly wasteful, negative-sum activity. It's good for signalling loyalty to your ingroup, but the tug-o-war isn't very productive.

  2. This may also explain why "left-liberals" often end up being so concerned to regulate speech either formally (anti-hate speech laws, speech codes, etc) or informally (denunciation): if "voice" is your preferred mechanism, then it is a precious resource to be used with maximum effect.

    I have tended to take a more cynical view, and regard the concern with "bad speech" as status-mongering ("folk who believe as I do are so much more virtuous than folk who do not") with the insistence on the viciousness of "wrong" views being a necessary corollary of the virtue of "correct" ones. But your point would help to explain why they pick on belief so much as a marker of moral character.

  3. TGGP, thanks for pointing the problem with the footnote out. I've tried to fix it - hopefully it works now.

    TGGP, Hirschmann does say in the book that the instances of exit weakening voice in economic life are "not easy to document" but perhaps unlike you, I think there are plenty of examples in political life. (The Pfaff book on the fall of the GDR is very good on this. Though the interaction is complicated, it does seem as if unrestricted exit can weaken voice under some conditions at least, though it can also augment it). And though voice isn't always productive, it does not seem to be generally unproductive. (In struggles over suffrage, for example, people usually wanted the vote for a reason, even if they overestimated the benefits of getting a voice).

    Lorenzo, I think speech regulation stems more from concerns about legitimacy than about voice itself; the problem is about who can legitimately speak, and secondarily the extent to which the voice of whoever is considered to be dominant can drown out the voice of those considered to be subordinate. (So voice against voice, perhaps). If you think certain groups are illegitimately dominated because their voice is illegitimately supressed, you may wish to artificially augment that voice by preventing certain kinds of things by dominant groups from being said.

    This, of course, does not suggest that there are no status motivations as well. (There usually are, but in theory at least that would not be how speech regulation is justified).

  4. And so left-liberals tend to look on exit-based solutions suspiciously, rightly understanding (as Hirschmann noted) that unrestricted exit typically undermines voice,

    I would think that exit-based solution increases voice because it creates more competition between institutions, forcing such institutions to be more responsive to voice.

    domination can be legitimate, for the true conservative, even when there is otherwise no possibility of exit or voice, so long as the right people are in charge, or the right rules are applied, or the right procedures have been followed, etc.

    All this says is that true conservatives are evil criminals.

  5. I checked out your link on Pfaff's book. It sounds like exit amplified voice. Where were the protests before people started exiting? Was there more voice in communist countries further from the west?

    Your post seems to suggest that a minority of "dissident" "leaders" were sidelined by the "insurgent" "anonymous numbers". Are the dissident leaders to be identified with "voice"?

    kurt9, sounds more like they are "good Germans" or Alexandre Jardin's "Very Nice People".

    Voice can also serve as a measure of the likelihood of exit, as in the case of Wal-Mart.

  6. TGGP, the idea in Pfaff's book is that exit amplifies voice up to a certain point (primarily by serving as a signal of widespread dissatisfaction) but past a certain point it undercuts it. When exit was a trickle in the GDR, voice was not activated (few protests, mostly by few "dissident leaders"); when it rose then protests became active ("anonymous numbers" - the big protests in the GDR were not organized by the dissidents who had led the initial Monday demonstrations); but in places where exit passed a certain threshold (where too many people left) protests could not be sustained very much (so the protest numbers dwindled). The exit-voice response curve is a kind of inverted U, on this view.

    I think this is also a more general process; exit can amplify and activate voice up to a certain point, but past a certain threshold it deactivates it (if nothing else because too many people leave, and the first to leave are typically those most dissatisfied, as Hirschmann argued; again, this seems to have been confirmed in the GDR). This is not to say that exit never serves to amplify voice, only that it doesn't always do so, especially if the costs of voice are too high relative to exit. (So, for example, before the Berlin Wall was built but after the repression of 1953, enormous levels of emigration from the GDR did very little to activate protest in the GDR; in fact it probably dampened it, by producing labor shortages).

    I agree with you that voice can serve as a measure of the likelihood of exit, and probably often serves in that way. But it is also sometimes valued when there is no exit option.

  7. kurt9, I think exit may (and likely, in many cases, does) make institutions more responsive to voice, but it may also induce sorting effects - people go where the institutions are most to their liking, including in some cases to places where they have little voice but receive other goods in return.

  8. I stand by my point that the notion that exit undermines voice is completely false. That exit creates sorting effects is a feature, not a bug. Of course people who share common interests or objective will associate more with each other than with those that do not. This is human nature and is the nature of interpersonal relationships. It is silly to argue against this.

    I also stand by my other point that the true conservatives actually believe domination to be value in it own right (independent from performance) makes clear that they are nothing more than evil criminal.

    I'm an "exit" guy, period. Why? Because exit really means the right of free association, and I consider free association to be one of the most fundamental liberties of all.

  9. kurt9, I think there is a difference between the responsiveness of institutions to people's preferences (which exit can certainly induce) and the question of whether exit undermines voice. In a world of free (low cost) exit (which I think would be quite desirable in many ways) it would often not be worthwhile to exercise voice in Hirschmann's sense of the term; it is too much trouble to "make your voice heard" (to complain, to vote, to write letters, to protest, etc.) The limited point Hirschmann was making (and which I was endorsing) is that lowering the costs of exit sufficiently undermines that kind of active voice (which is what he means by voice). This doesn't mean that institutions don't respond to exit - of course they do. They try to avoid people exiting by improving their services or, in the case of coercive organizations like states, by trying to prevent them from leaving (see, e.g., the GDR, North Korea, and Cuba, among many other examples). But they don't always respond to exit by becoming responsive to active voice, and exit does not always strengthen that kind of active voice that Hirschmann was talking about. So I think we don't really disagree that much on that point.

  10. Xavier: yes, but that still goes to the importance given to voice. Though your point does go to how the designated disadvantaged are "permitted" to say things that the designated advantaged are not. I have posted a more extended meditation here: I will confess to being somewhat motivated by rather too many comment threads of a certain tone and the patterns of "arguing" one meets therein.

  11. It strikes me that a lot turns here on whether voice is valued for its own sake or instrumentally. Someone may think voice is hugely important--but may view it this way because (perhaps given the costs of exit) the only way to bring about change is through the exercise of voice. Such a person need not regard it as dismaying if the effectiveness of voice is undermined by exit as long as circumstances can be readily improved either through actual exit or via changes brought about through the threat of exit. The degree to which it's troubling that the availability of exit as an option undermines the effectiveness of voice will thus depend on why one values voice in the first place.

    I don't say this to dismiss concerns about voice: the sense that a given relationship or association is mine and that I shouldn't be marginalized within it could certainly make me unwilling to pursue exit as an option in some circumstances. In such cases, it's easy to imagine treating voice as intrinsically valuable. But in many others, I do think the significance of voice is primarily instrumental, and I suspect many others would agree.

    In these latter cases, voice will still matter as long as exit is costly. But the more exit costs can be reduced--as, most importantly, by deterritorializing law-making and governance--the less important, relatively speaking, voice is likely to be except where it's valued intrinsically.

  12. Gary, that's a very good point.