Three Continents

Political Economy and Development of Democracy in Europe, the United States and Latin America

by Luca Meldolesi (Volume editor) Albert O. Hirschman (Author)
©2022 Edited Collection X, 220 Pages
Series: Albert Hirschman’s Legacy, Volume 3


With an astonishing unity of inspiration that serves as a counterbalance to the richness and variety of his themes and positions, Albert O. Hirschman, great political economist of our time, introduces us to the study of Western Europe, the United States and Latin America. From his own memories of the fascist period retold on the occasion of his honorary degree to two previously unpublished writings on the origins of European integration, from a group of illuminating essays on the contemporary economic and political realities of developed Western countries to a selection of texts on South America containing the provisional balance sheet of long experience, this is an intellectual lesson in the truest sense. Through his original way of penetrating the realities of our time, the author unveils a series of concrete issues and new and unlikely ways forward, constructing a tenacious and possibilist scientific pathway aimed at the unstinting encouragement of mutual understanding, economic and civic growth, and the democratic development of three continents.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Luca Meldolesi: Foreword
  • Luca Meldolesi: Introduction: “A Passion for the Possible”
  • Franco Ferraresi and Albert O. Hirschman: “Laura Honoris Causa in Political Science”, Turin, Nov. 12th, 1987
  • 1 Disinflation, Discrimination, and the Dollar Shortage
  • 2 Proposal for a European Monetary Authority
  • 3 Approaches to Multilateralism and European Integration
  • 4 Effects of Industrialization on the Markets of Industrial Countries
  • 5 Invitation to Theorizing about the Dollar Glut
  • 6 Exit and Voice in American Ideology and Practice
  • 7 The Welfare State in Trouble: Systemic Crisis or Growing Pains?
  • 8 Three Uses of Political Economy in Analyzing European Integration
  • 9 [The Universal Suffrage]
  • 10 The Turn to Authoritarianism in Latin America and the Search for Its Economic Determinants
  • 11 What Does It All Add up to?
  • 12 On Democracy in Latin America
  • 13 The Political Economy of Latin American Development: Seven Exercises in Retrospection
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Subjects

←vi | vii→


The present volume was not originally planned by Albert Hirschman.

It was not part of the large group of texts in English that he also published in a number of continental European languages to enable a wider circulation of his work.1 Nor was it part of the two anthologies that came out of the opportunities offered by “Il Mulino” of Bologna,2 which I had the honor of editing. This time, the triggering factor, so to speak, was the Laurea honoris causa in political science ←vii | viii→that Hirschman was awarded on November 12, 1987 by the University of Turin, presented by the then Vice-Chancellor Franco Ferraresi, a common friend who died prematurely.

It was then that I had the idea of proposing to Hirschman the publication of a collection of texts written at different times under the title Three Continents. Political Economy and the Development of Democracy in Europe, the United States, and Latin America3—‘in the West,’ in other words. In doing so I took into account Hirschman’s prevailing interest at the time in democracy,4 which rounded out (and in a certain sense counterbalanced) his initial focus on development economics. But I perhaps did not fully realize at the time the extent to which the title actually reflected, quite profoundly, the Colornian aspirations that Albert had cultivated unceasingly since his youth.

Yet it is clear to me today that in Hirschman’s work for the U.S. Federal Reserve Board on the Marshall Plan there was undoubtedly a supra-European dimension, along with a “Europeanist” attitude that, as we shall see, is sometimes surprisingly explicit. And in his “courageous decision” (as he himself referred to it) to take on the assignment of economic planning in Colombia, after having entertained for some time the idea of working with his friend Manlio Rossi-Doria in Portici (Naples) for the development of the Italian Mezzogiorno,5 there is undoubtedly a need to move outside the borders of what was then called the first world, the developed world, and to open broader horizons. And going still further, in my opinion it is in this spirit that we should also interpret Hirschman’s late decision to spend six months of the year in Berlin after the fall of the Wall, his intention to organize in the German capital an inter-European colloquium on his work for a select group of experienced scholars—which he was unfortunately unable to fulfill, and his criticism of the founding process of the EU (contained in an interview with a French newspaper6) for having focused too much on economics at the expense of the formation of a true European culture, etc.

All this became increasingly clear to me as I immersed myself in the work of Eugenio Colorni as editor of his complete works in seven volumes for the publishers Editore Rubbettino of Soveria Mannelli and the Bordighera Press in New York. In fact, Colorni’s Europeanist federalism was only a first step in the ever-expanding project of overcoming nationalism and imperialism (a Herculean ←viii | ix→undertaking, of course, which will probably require the work of several generations). In my opinion, Hirschman’s entire practical and intellectual experience lies within this perspective, which originated in Trieste in 1937–1938 out of the intense, almost daily dialogue involving Albert Hirschman, Eugenio Colorni and his friends,7 while preparations were under way for the terrible nationalist and imperialist tragedy of the Second World War.

The present volume thus stands at the origin of my awareness of these things. Once he had accepted the idea, it was Hirschman, of course, who selected the essays in Three Continents—essays which, in the introduction, I suggested should be read with a passion for the possible8 because, as I wrote at the time, this attitude of the mind is also useful as a visual angle for observing and introducing the texts here collected...

Luca Meldolesi
A Colorni-Hirschman International Institute
26 November 2021, Rome.

Hirschman, A.O.

1987Potenza nazionale e commercio estero. Gli anni trenta, l’Italia e la ricostruzione, P.F. Asso and M. de Cecco, eds., Il Mulino, Bologna.

1987aL’economia politica come scienza morale e sociale, L. Meldolesi, ed., Liguori, Napoli.

1988Come complicare l’economia, L. Meldolesi, ed., Il Mulino, Bologna. (now Peter Lang Pub. 2020).

1990Come far passare le riforme, L. Meldolesi, ed., Il Mulino, Bologna. (now Peter Lang Pub. 2021).

1990aTre continenti. Economia politica e sviluppo della democrazia in Europa, Stati Uniti e America Latina, L. Meldolesi, ed., Einaudi, Torino.

1991The Rhetoric of Reaction, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

1995[Interview], Evénement du jeudi, 25 May.←ix | x→

Meldolesi, L.

1993“Aux origines du possibilisme d’Albert Hirschman (1932–52),” Revue Française de Science Politique, n. 3, June.

1994Alla scoperta del possibile. Il mondo sorprendente di Albert O. Hirschman, Il Mulino, Bologna; English trans: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1995; Spanish trans: Fondo de Cultura Econòmica, México, 1997.

Rossi-Doria, M.

2011Una vita per il Sud. Dialoghi epistolari 1944–1987, Donzelli, Roma.

←x | 1→

Introduction: “A Passion for the Possible”

In 1971 Albert Hirschman published “Introduction: Political Economics and Possibilism,” “an attempt to delineate common themes and to discover an underlying methodology and perhaps philosophy” in his own work (1971a, p. ix). This essay, which opens the collection A Bias for Hope, has as its point of reference a period of 18 years (1952–1970) dedicated almost entirely to the economics of development and to Latin America. Actually, however, it remained the author’s main methodological text thereafter. This led me to the idea that a possible “Ariadne’s thread” for approaching the present collection might be this same introductory essay—the second part especially—along with the linked article that closes A Bias for Hope, eloquently entitled “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding.”1←1 | 2→

The problem is one of cognitive style, exemplified in the text by the comparison of two books: Patterns of Conflict in Colombia by James L. Payne, and Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack. The first of these starts off presenting its own general key for a complete (and grotesque) understanding of the Colombian political system. The second instead reaches certain circumspect conclusions after having carefully reconstructed a specific historical event that contains a broader lesson (in content and method).

The point, of course, is not to forego a search for regularities and paradigms—which play an important role in Hirschman’s work as well (consider exit-voice—1970—or the idea of ‘slack’ or the ‘tunnel effect’—1986a, chap. 1 and 1981a, chap. 3)—but to adopt a cognitive style that respects the complexity of life and leaves room for the unexpected. This means that “the kind of paradigms we search out, the way we put them together, and the ambitions we nurture for their powers—all this can make a great deal of difference” (1971a, p. 354).

2.In an effort to clarify these arguments, Hirschman maintains that we need to watch out for paradigms that claim to give a clear-cut answer regarding the expected consequences of a given event.

Typically, large-scale social change is produced by a unique constellation of disparate events. It is unrepeatable and (ex ante) improbable, and to see it requires staying alert—being gripped, as Kierkegaard put it, by a “passion for what is possible” rather than relying on what passes for traditional analysis.←2 | 3→

In the second part of the introduction to A Bias for Hope this concept takes on a wider meaning. Here it is no longer a case of understanding (as such) social change on a large scale—deep reforms or revolutions, but rather to record a common characteristic of the writings collected—the focus on processes of change—and to note a basic position in the author’s thinking. This involves “widen[ing] the limits of what is or is perceived to be possible, be it at the cost of lowering our ability, real or imaginary, to discern the probable” (1971a, p. 28).


X, 220
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
Development Reforms Democracy Possibilism Latin America Europe United States Political Economy Change Dependence Decision-making Fracasomania Ideology Leadership Three Continents Political Economy and Development of Democracy in Europe, United States, and Latin America LUCA MELDOLESI ALBERT O. HIRSCHMAN
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2022. X, 220 pp., 1 b/w ill., 1 table.

Biographical notes

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

Albert O. Hirschman (7 April 1915–10 December 2012) was an economist and the author of several books on political economy and political ideology. Luca Meldolesi is Professor of Economic and Financial Policy at the University of Naples.


Title: Three Continents
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