Economist Albert Hirschman wrote a classic book in the 1970s called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. He explored decisions to stay or leave, and if we stay, how we might try to bring about change by speaking up or speaking out. His examples range from divorce, to social clubs, where we work or shop, to where we live, to the Mafia, which is quite risky to leave. A good friend once called exiting by physically relocating “the geographic solution,” moving to the other side of the fence where the grass is greener only to find that you brought the same dissatisfied self along. So sometimes adapting to the culture and its values is the best choice. If you have a reasonable alternative—another job, another place to live—exit is less costly, but if the alternatives are unsatisfactory or costly, you may decide to grit your teeth, hang in there, and try to bring about change.
Sometimes we exit and then use voice to express our frustration after our departure. Other times we try to use voice and when that fails to bring about change, we reluctantly exit. Voice is the primary tool of the political scientist, exit the strategy favored by economists.
Loyalty is a factor in staying or leaving. That’s why advertisers try to develop brand loyalty, why organizations have high entrance fees or departure penalties, why colleges and churches stress the community and identity components of the experience they offer in order to encourage people to remain (for colleges, as supportive alumni). Many organizations—social, civic, commercial, religious—stress that they are held together by shared values, and belonging to that group becomes a part of your identity.
States and nations have shared civic values. Sometimes those values that don’t reflect our personal preferences. The state or nation in which we are born is often hard to leave, because of the bonds of shared culture, family and friends, the comfort of familiar surroundings, a shared history and language. Often it feels like a take it or leave it situation. Someone else has defined the values and the priority among those values, and you feel like you had no voice in shaping or changing them.
High costs or serious drawbacks to leaving can help a city (or a college, or a congregation, or a business, or a family) that is going through difficult times recover and change in a positive way, because those who find exit difficult will use voice instead. They will make their concerns known and encourage others to do likewise. If they don’t like their city government, it is less costly to run for city council than to sell your house and move to another town. Feeling trapped in a marriage, they may choose marriage counseling over divorce. Rather than taking a store off the shopping list, customers can talk to the management about why they are thinking of leaving.
Americans arrived in North America from many different places. Except for the African Americans who arrived as slaves, most of those who emigrated to American made the decision to come for one of two driving reasons. After all, it takes a pretty powerful motive to cross a very big ocean, knowing that it you may never again see your homeland and some of your loved ones. Some were driven by war, revolution, or disaster—the Irish potato famine, for example. Others came because they had a taste for adventure, to try something new. They were people tended to who value freedom over security.
That preference has left its mark on our shared DNA. It leads to favoring the geographic solution to dissatisfaction, a pattern that continued until we ran out of frontiers, but until recently was still reflected in a high rate of geographic mobility among Americans. Mobile Americans assumed that they did not have to bloom where we were planted, but could uproot themselves and start over somewhere else. Exit was a viable option.
As the frontier closed, and the effects of being transient took a toll of family life and children’s sense of security, American mobility within the country has declined. Psychologist Bella de Paula writes that “only about 10 percent of Americans — or even fewer — change homes in any given year. Twenty years ago, in the year 2000, about 15 percent moved. Twenty years before that, in 1980, about 18 percent changed homes. And in 1950, about 20 percent of Americans moved — about twice as many as today. What’s more, when people move, it is usually not very far…geography professor Thomas Cooke found that most people who move stay within the same county, fewer move to a different county within the same state, and fewer still move to a different state. In 2019, only 1.5% of Americans moved to a different state.” She cites technology that enables us to access resources without relocating, the high cost of moving, two-career families, and the joy of “rootedness” as reasons for the decline.
Americans today are less likely to exit and more likely to use voice to bring about change from within. That reduced mobility calls for learning to live with others who do not see the world the way we do, and to focus on those values that we do share. Instead, in our current political environment, it also often results in voice being expressed as violence and polarization, feeling that we are stuck with a bunch of fellow citizens that just don’t get us—on both sides.
As I write this, we are headed toward an election that will continue the polarization regardless of the outcome. So this blog is the first of a series of five on the core civic virtues and how practicing them might help us to restore civility, respect, and a willingness to compromise to our public dialogue. Next week: Active hope.