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On how democratic change happens

By Bayo Ogunmupe
12 August 2021   |   3:07 am
For the economist Albert Hirschman, democracy thrives not on strong opinions but on doubt and flexibility.

For the economist Albert Hirschman, democracy thrives not on strong opinions but on doubt and flexibility.

The exploration of this theme was triggered by Nigeria’s Twitter ban which is proving costlier than just a regular internet shutdown.

As of Day 61, the Twitter ban had cost Nigeria $366.9 million, only Myanmar and India have had worse losses. Nigeria’s ban has affected 104.4 million internet users in the country. The loss and subsequent poverty of the people are due to poor economic management and ignorance.
Like most disciplines, the field of development economics came into being not because of disinterested intellectual curiosity but rather due to pressing social needs. In the late 1960s, the cue to the continual reorientation of our work has normally come from the sphere of politics; responding to that cue, students turn to research on issues of political prominence. Theories are propounded, data collected and the literature on the new problems expand.
In the case of economic development, the cue was the new postwar political order occasioned by the demise of empires, the onset of the Cold War, and the birth of newly independent states of the Third World. While the new discipline had a good dose of Cold War hawks, it also attracted many talented economists enticed by the prospect of contributing to the advancement of less developed countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Brazil.

One such figure was the German-born émigré to the United States, Albert Hirschman, who from 1946 had worked as an economist with the Federal Reserve Board, the US Central Bank on problems of economic reconstruction and cooperation in Western Europe. In 1952, Hirschman moved to Colombia on a World Bank assignment to assist Colombia’s National Planning Council to implement development policies. The book that distilled that experience, ‘The Strategy of Economic Development’ was immediately recognized as a great contribution to development economics, and it made Hirschman famous as a pioneer in that field as well as earning him tenure as a fellow at Columbia University.
The book’s success rested on its original and stimulating analyses as well as the author’s rhetorical strategy of presenting them as a novel and dissenting view on development, entirely different from the fashionable orthodoxy of unrealistic development plans. Hirschman wrote: How many a traveller to an underdeveloped country has been bewildered and dismayed by the ubiquitous poverty and inefficiency, by the immensity of the task, and by the interlocking vicious circles! The temptation is strong then to leave all this backwardness alone and to dream of an entirely new type of economy where there is order and beauty.
Instead of focusing on comprehensive plans, Hirschman posited, developing countries should focus on hidden mechanisms that were already at work, even perhaps in a roundabout and unappreciated fashion. Development depended not so much on the optimal combinations of given resources and their correct use as on understanding the sequences, pressure, and investment linkages that activated the processes of change.
The crucial issue was understanding how to be able to dislodge backwardness from the central position where it may be entrenched. The book was devoted to the study of these economic mechanisms. However, underlying the discourse was a non-economic motif: development’s role in safeguarding democracy. Hirschman was alive to the tension characterizing societies undergoing transformation and modernization and feared consequences that frustrated hopes for development may trigger in the event development plans should fail.
Indeed, failure might have worse consequences than ineffectiveness. It might produce violence and destruction. Futility, he wrote, can be abruptly replaced by brutality, and by what John Maynard Keynes in 1938 called the “thin and precarious crust of civilization.” It was for that reason that the author focused on the process of economic development instead of on resources. His concern was to keep the mirage of development from suddenly turning into a nightmare.
In his youth, Hirschman witnessed how hopes of economic recovery could cause the collapse of democracies. Born in 1915 in Berlin, the only son in an upper-middle-class family of assimilated Jews, he came of age during the crisis and turmoil of the Weimar Republic of Germany. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 he was not yet 18 years old; by April 1933, he was on a train leaving of German exiles fleeing Nazi repression.
First in Paris, then in London, and finally in Trieste where he defended his doctoral thesis in 1938. He wanted to be a scholar but he also felt that he could not just sit and look on without doing anything for world peace. He joined the French army at the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1940, Hirschman reached Lisbon on foot, with a Lithuanian passport and entry visa to the US, he embarked to New York and that was how he emigrated to the United States.
Hirschman’s interests were diverse and his insights were vast as well. He considered historical analysis fundamental to development economics. He was preoccupied with ways to reinforce democracy. In 1989, he saw democracy coming back to life following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He found revolutionary stances not only anti-democratic but also simplistic and ineffective. On how did this change occur? He recommended specificity of policymaking, emphasizing the ability to advance a reformist policy agenda. He said doubt could motivate action instead of undermining and enervating it. Doubt is also a generator of new ideas. Hirschman’s theory of possibility is perhaps the most eloquent explanation of why Hirschman is an inexhaustible resource for those who are interested in understanding how our democracies can survive and thrive or at least muddle through.