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December 10: Albert O. Hirschman, Rescuer

December 10, 2014

3160294fbf4e4e2636a6e7741674331414f6744Economist and social scientist Albert O. Hirschman, who helped American journalist Varian Fry rescue more than 2,000 Jewish artists and intellectuals from Nazi-occupied France by finding routes to Spain through the Pyrenees Mountains, died at 97 on this date in 2012. Hirschman had fought to defend the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War, and then joined the French Resistance. By the early 1940s, he had come to the U.S. and served in North Africa and Italy as part of the Office of Strategic Services, then in Europe as a Marshall Plan economist. Beginning in the 1950s, he held posts at Yale, Columbia, and Harvard, and at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies. As an economist, according to the New York Times obituary, “Hirschman argued that social setbacks were essentially an ingredient of progress, that good things eventually come from what he viewed as constructive tensions between private interest and civic-mindedness, between quiet compliance and loud protest.” The Economist described him as arguing that “people have two different ways of responding to disappointment. They can vote with their feet (exit) or stay put and complain (voice). Exit has always been the default position in the United States: Americans are known as being quick to up sticks and move.” But the exit response “may also reinforce the cycle of decline. State schools may get worse if the pushiest parents take their custom elsewhere. Mr. Hirschman worried that a moderate amount of exit might produce the worst of all worlds: ‘an oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy...’ ”

“Albert Hirschman was a progressive. He believed in the importance of economic development, social change, just distribution of resources, and the welfare state. But he also had a realistic understanding of how difficult social change was to accomplish, and spent a great deal of time dissecting the modalities of bringing it about.” —Francis Fukuyama