Dwelling Together in Peace (?)

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[1] 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.


[1] https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-psychology-of-staying-put-why-mobility-in-the-u-s-has-been-declining-for-decades/.

Time to Speak, Time to Leave

One of my all time favorite books, written by an economist in 1970 (Albert Hirschman), is Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The focus is on how we deal with dissatisfaction with anything–a relationship, a community, a seller, a political party.  Economists, he argues, focus on exit as the strategy–just leave, find a better relationship, restaurant, neighborhood, political party, community.  There are two problems with just leaving.  One is that there are costs to you–costs of relocating, of finding new communities or relationships or restaurants.  The other is the baffled person, firm, or community you left behind, who or which doesn’t know what went wrong and can try to improve.

Enter voice, the preferred response of political scientists.  Complain. Explain.  Try to repair the relationship or reconnect with the community. Engage in dialogue.  Even compromise if necessary.Give the person or community or firm a chance to improve and keep your relationship.

How do we decide? Do we use the threat of exit to make our voice heard?  What if we have no place to go? A friend of mine, a Lutheran, found that exit was pretty easy when things went wrong at her Lutheran church in a large metropolitan area. There were good substitutes.  She was loyal to Lutheranism but not necessarily to one particular incarnation, so she just changed her membership to another congregation.  I, on the other hand, am a member of a small faith tradition, and it’s 40 miles in either direction to another congregation. So my costs of exit are higher, and I am more likely to use voice and leave only as a last resort.

Hirschman calls this attachment to a particular relationship, community, restaurant, or bank loyalty, and it is loyalty (including the costs of leaving) that makes us choose between exit and voice as our default strategy. Monopoly firms have high costs for exit by customers because there is no alternative available.  Gangs impose very high costs on those who attempt to exit.  Some religious communities have used a variety of strategies to discourage exit, such as burning at the stake for heresy in earlier times to the practice of shunning among the Amish.

Our default choice will vary from one situation to another, depending on loyalty of some kind. Default just means the one we try first. Voice is fair in that it gives the other party a chance to respond, change, or decline to engage, anfter which exit may become more attractive. Voce can be expressed in many ways.  Complaining is only one.  Some people are quick to complain, others hesitate to speak up. .  Voice can mean getting involved and trying to make change from within.  Voice may mean engaging a third party, a mutual friend, a marriage counselor, the Better Business Bureau, or reviews on Yelp! Voice in the political area may mean becoming informed, writing letters to the editor, engaging others, voting.

Hirschman was mainly focused on exit, voice and loyalty as an economic question of why firms fail before they have a chance to regroup and improve.  But it’s an important question in our personal lives as well.  Sometimes we look for a middle, more passive strategy that is less risky than either exit or voice, especially in personal relationships with individuals and voluntary communities.  We can to pull back, tone it down, shift some of our attention to other people and other communities without making a complete break. In a sense, a partial withdrawal is a blend of exit and voice.  But it’s not often a very effective strategy, because you are waiting for your coolness to be noticed rather than being more pro-active in trying to strengthen or restore the relationship.

I invite you to share your experiences with using exit, or voice, or pulling back as ways of dealing with frustration in relationships and in communities.