How Reforms Should Be Passed

by Albert O. Hirschman (Author) Luca Meldolesi (Volume editor)
©2021 Monographs VI, 264 Pages
Series: Albert Hirschman’s Legacy, Volume 2


Well-known as a pioneer of economic development, Albert O. Hirschman has been the flag-bearer of possibilism and reform-mongering in political science. How Reforms Should Be Passed is an anthology of texts chosen personally by Hirschman on the latter production line—as he was to call it informally—that is rooted in his long and quasi-exclusive concern for development and Latin America. Key essays on the formation and the evolution of Hirschman’s point of view on the subject are collected: from "Ideologies of Economic Development in Latin America" to Journeys (and later "A Return Journey") on policy-making; from "Obstacles to the Perception of Change" to "The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding." They show an extraordinary turn of the mind in the making that will be very useful for the United States and the developed world as well—as the final texts of the book on democracy and Europe (Italy, Germany and France) bear out. This book represents a unique opportunity for becoming familiar with many original and perceptive lenses provided by Hirschman to look at the world we live in, and especially to favor social change—focusing (first of all) on the cultural and political side of the matter.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction, Luca Meldolesi
  • 1 Ideologies of Economic Development in Latin America
  • 2 Abrazo vs. Coexistence
  • 3 “Introduction” to Journeys Toward Progress: Studies of Economic Policy-Making in Latin America
  • 4 Problem-Solving and Policy-Making: A Latin American Style?
  • 5 How Policy is Made
  • 6 Underdevelopment, Obstacles to the Perception of Change, and Leadership
  • 7 The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding
  • 8 Ideology: Mask, or Nessus Shirt?
  • 9 “Preface” to Journeys Toward Progress: Studies of Economic Policy-Making in Latin America (Norton Library Edition, 1973)
  • 10 Policymaking and Policy Analysis in Latin America—A Return Journey
  • 11 Notes on Consolidating Democracy in Latin America
  • 12 “Prefazione” to Potenza nazionale e commercio estero. Gl’anni trenta, l’Italia e la ricostruzione
  • 13 Io, ‘detective’ dell’economia fascista. (I, Detective of the Fascist Economy)
  • 14 Berlin Festvortrag
  • 15 Remerciements
  • Index of Content
  • Index of Names


Possibilism and Social Change

1. The texts that make up the present collection are essays, introductions, chapters and notes which (often) display a decidedly political character compared with the bulk of Albert Hirschman’s intellectual work. For the most part they are concerned with the writing of Journeys Toward Progress: Studies of Economic Policy-Making in Latin America1 in the sense that they either prefigure the themes discussed in these studies, form an integral part of them, or take the reasoning a step further. There follow the original version of four brief texts (brought together here for the first time) that take up the line of reasoning from the 1930s and 1940s and contain some ideas central to the consolidation and advancement of democracy in today’s world, in both developed and developing countries.

This is an important though little known aspect of Hirschman’s work and is particularly useful in present-day debate. In fact, the interest of economists, sociologists and political scientists that surrounds the work of this author seems to indicate a path for research that brings with it his political inspiration.←1 | 2→

In particular, I have begun to think, the fact that his characteristic “passion for the possible” was linked with his work in the immediate postwar period2 might suggest a deeper exploration of this theme. To move in this direction, moreover, it might be useful to concentrate efforts on the “Introduction” to A Bias for Hope,3 and gradually reconstruct the aspects of its origin that lead to the thesis of ‘reform-mongering’—the problem, that is (and our main interest here), of “how to get reforms passed”. It goes without saying, finally, that this last proposition may acquire further significance when the roads that join and depart from Journeys have been adequately ‘trodden’.


“A Methodology and Perhaps an Underlying Philosophy”

2. Let us start with a simple observation.

In spite of what is generally believed, The Strategy of Economic Development4 and Journeys are deeply linked, so much so that they appear to be two parts of the same construction.5 The Strategy offers consultants and governments of Third World countries a strategy of economic development, while Journeys sets itself the problem of carrying through with the economic policies desired. The two volumes both originate in Hirschman’s experience as economic consultant in Colombia in 1952–56, and were “prefigured,” respectively, by “Economics and Investment Planning: Reflections Based on Experience in Colombia,” and Economic Policy in Underdeveloped Countries.”6 In addition, the two books are ←2 | 3→explicitly linked with one another by the proposition (contained in The Strategy7 and revisited in the introduction to Journeys8) that “nonmarket forces are not necessarily less ‘automatic’ than market forces.”

This is already enough to bring us to grips with a methodological point of general application. It is characteristic of the author to “continually move forward,” successively dealing with differing and delimited research objects and constructing for this purpose the corresponding instruments of reasoning. Every step in this often surprising and original “adventure” is protected by the “hiding hand.”9 But it is at the same time clearly affected by previous intellectual history (stretching from Europe to the United States and Latin America) in such a way that it is possible to trace, ex post, some of the many connections that exist between the different articles. All this suggests the path we will try to follow. While each of the different works has a specific purpose and its own role in the overall work, looking into the connections that bring them together may help us understand the progressive emergence of an open vision, evolving constantly, that is capable of making a virtue of necessity—that is, it is able to transform the problems encountered along the way into advances.

3. It is no secret that “Introduction: Political Economics and Possibilism10 is Albert Hirschman’s principal methodological text. Paradoxically—cf. note 2—along with Asso and de Cecco, I have found it easier to view this work in relation to his output of the early postwar period than to fit the problems it addresses into the “Harvard period” that it actually belongs to. This inversion (between understanding a text and finding connections to it) exemplifies the problem we have ←3 | 4→just raised, but at the same time it does not exempt us from the effort of further in-depth investigation.

The “Introduction” comes at the end of eighteen years primarily dedicated to development economics and to Latin America.

After such a long time, as Hirschman explains in the “Preface” to A Bias,11 “the focus of my interests may shift (as it did in my most recent book12); consequently, I felt that this was a good time to assemble my shorter papers in these fields. Secondly, the seven essays published since 1965 [that is, after his transfer from Columbia University to Harvard]—over one-half of the book—were written so closely together in time that one often starts where the other leaves off; increasingly they became chapters of a book in formation. Finally, there is the hitherto unpublished introductory essay. It is an attempt to delineate common themes and to discover an underlying methodology and perhaps philosophy. I have been reluctant to delve into such matters, but there comes a time when one feels he ought to try. Bringing together the present group of writings supplied the indispensable stimulus.”

For our purposes, this step seems to suggest three connected levels of analysis. The first concerns the specific occasion of the “Introduction” (which in any case—because of its function, the themes it deals with, etc.—cannot be discussed in isolation); the second has to do with its relationship with the essays published during the Harvard years and perhaps more generally with the writings of that period; the third concerns its connection to the entirety of Hirschman’s work on development and Latin America. As mentioned, we may add to these a fourth, a search for the methodological origins of his work during the “Washington period” (when the author was a young functionary in the international section of the Federal Reserve Board) or even earlier.

This will illustrate the complexity of the task. It does become more manageable, however, when we accept that we must proceed in steps, focusing initially on the first two levels of the inquiry. Indeed, if we link the drafting of the “Introduction” to the seven Harvard essays republished in A Bias (and to Development Projects Observed, 1967, and Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, 1970—the two books of that period) our question begins to take on a better defined aspect.

4. The essays, while linked to one another, were divided by subject and included in the three parts of A Bias. Two belong to the first part, “Elaborating ←4 | 5→The Strategy of Economic Development,” and they also reflect the problems addressed in Journeys.13 Two are included in the second, “Addressing the Rich Countries: Critiques and Appeals,” and three in the third, “Addressing the Developing Countries: A Bias for Hope,” to exemplify the types of recommendations and solutions offered by possibilism—cf. below, sec. 11–12. Finally, if we mentally compare our “Introduction” to the two other books, here again we find many pathways.14

Following these itineraries we arrive at the actual difficulty of a current reading of the “Introduction” to A Bias. A specific interpretation of it (with relevant ←5 | 6→references) ought to be able to attribute to this text the role it deserves; but, on the other hand, such work can bring to mind a general question.

Hirschman in fact tells us that he has uncovered “two principal common characteristics” among the texts assembled in A Bias. The first concerns the political dimensions of economic phenomena and the developmental sequences created by the interaction of economic and political factors. The second is “a preoccupation with processes of change.” While these are indeed distinct themes (and areas), they are not walled off from one another. And it may appear at first glance that in reality they ought to respond to a traditional approach—that the analysis has to be conducted on a rigorously objective (“scientific”) basis so that it can serve as a basis for policy.

It seems to me however that this point of view (one that inspired authors as important as Comte, Marx and Durkheim, and can be taken back as far as Saint-Simon15) is not at all Hirschman’s view, and that in his work, on the contrary, analysis and politics draw on each other in a close dialogue that engages the totality of the author’s experience.

Economics and Politics

5. The first part of the “Introduction” reviews the “blocks” of existing material on the relation between economics and politics, criticizes economic theories of politics and recalls some “fine-grained” political dimensions of economic phenomena—contained, for example, in commercial gain, in consumer income (analyzed respectively in National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade16 and in Exit), in the economic theory of customs unions (to be developed in a later essay17), and in still others taken from texts included in A Bias18 and from the economic histories of some developing countries.←6 | 7→

It was necessary to look at these examples, Hirschman explains,19 to be able to arrive at a double proposition: “on one hand it is clear that the number of connections between economics and politics is limited only by the ability of researchers to ‘catch’ them. On the other, it seems extremely unlikely that there exists anywhere a general key” that can bring these connections to light. This represents a distancing from large-scale systems, from those theories (of Montesquieu and Marx, Wittfogel and McLuhan) which, as he wrote in slightly earlier20 “cut history and the human experience in general into huge slices.” And it also indicates an opposing pathway, aimed at a search for specific and unusual routes, for blessings in disguise and compensatory relationships, for unbalanced sequences and for connections which, unusually, start from politics and then reach the economy.

But a little later, when Hirschman describes his personal pleasure at each of these discoveries—every time it was almost like suddenly finding yourself in the Piazza del Campo in Siena—and then builds an analysis of a possible profile of general models in which economic and political forces are treated as endogenous variables, the reader may be puzzled—perhaps because some of the elements in the line of reasoning would nowadays require further clarification.

6. In fact, once the field is cleared of certain “primitive” models (though still in use)—such as those where the economic system is self-regulating and political factors only play the role of the spoilsport, or where economic growth settles, or provokes, political storms—the author suggests we recall the “Marxian concept of historical process,” and thus the interaction between economic and political factors (that is, between means of production and relations of production) within it. Beyond a certain threshold—this is Marx’s well-known thesis—the development of the economy, within a pre-existing political and institutional frame, is hampered by the failure of the frame itself to transform. At this point social forces appear which bring change in such a way that further economic progress will emerge.

This form of interaction, which Hirschman juxtaposes with the law of diminishing returns, is used again and again (without premeditation) in The Strategy when the economic mechanism, left to itself, generates a scarcity of fixed social capital or imbalances, inter-regional or otherwise, such as to provoke public intervention. The difference, of course, is that in these cases the author is working on a small scale—this is the precise origin of the proposal to apply the Marxian ←7 | 8→form of interaction between economics and politics to the study of a series of delimited and concrete problems where political changes are less general and can be examined more closely (in their fragmentary nature), where their cycles differ (in breadth, length and frequency) and are brought about by specific agents of change identified case by case.

7. Even in light of other texts by the author, what could be added to this important fine-tuning?

In the first place, it is useful in my view to point out that Hirschmanian interactions between politics and economics do not necessarily unfold in any main direction, nor are they linked together by the attribution of “rank” (in Hegel’s expression). More generally, in contrast to what the materialist conception of history would prescribe, here material conditions are not the foundation of consciousness and the economy is not the basis of the politics. The two are instead considered to be in a state of absolute parity (which is explicitly stated in Exit).21

Furthermore, the interaction between economics and politics, while a general attribute, cannot be absolutized as omnipresent. In this regard we can repeat what Hirschman later wrote referring to the concept of linkage,22 that “it thus challenges other approaches to suggest alternative or supplementary interpretations.”

Finally, one more word on the “Marx problem” would not be amiss. Along with keeping its distance from grand systems and the materialist conception of history, the relationship between economics and politics proposed here also obviously moves away from the economic and political analyses of Capital.23 Marx, as Hirschman later recalled,24 mocked the utopian socialists and supported the thesis of “scientific socialism.” “True science [Marx believed] does not preach, it proves and predicts: so he proves the existence of exploitation through the labor theory of value and predicts the eventual demise of capitalism. […] In effect Marx mixed, uncannily, these “cold” scientific propositions with “hot” moral outrage and it was perhaps this odd amalgam, with all of its inner tensions unresolved, ←8 | 9→that was (and is) responsible for the extraordinary appeal of his work in an age both addicted to science and starved of moral values.”

8. In conclusion, therefore, with this methodological introduction the multi-faceted and patient work of our author finds a reference point in the concept of historical process theorized by Marx; but it is a limited link that it would be inappropriate to expand.

It seems to me useful, on the other hand, to move in the opposite direction, not least because focusing on the differences that exist leads us to a better understanding of Hirschman’s position.

This is not difficult to see—having once embarked on the path of interaction between economic and political factors on a small scale (and thus the study of concrete political changes, seen close up, following their specific processes) the “Introduction arrives at the identification of economic-political sequences and the problem of the “correct amplitude” of their oscillations. At this point, in my view, we are far removed from Marx.25 The abandonment of a main direction (from the economic to the political) and of the pretense of demonstrating in order to predict actually opens a new avenue to the interrelation of economic and political factors.


VI, 264
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VI, 264 pp., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Albert O. Hirschman (Author) Luca Meldolesi (Volume editor)

Albert O. Hirschman, born in Berlin in 1915 and a refugee from Nazi Germany, graduated from the University of Trieste in 1938. He moved to the United States in 1940, joined the army during the war, worked in the Marshall Plan for the Federal Reserve, and then, for the World Bank, advised the Colombia Government on development. Hirschman taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and has been Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Luca Meldolesi, born in Rome in 1939, taught at the universities of Rome, Calabria, and Naples, collaborated with Hirschman on numerous books and articles and has applied Hirschman’s point of view in his teaching, grass roots initiatives and in government on behalf of the Italian South.


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