Interface: Excerpt from Conduit Interview

Jeremy Adelman on Albert O. Hirschman

ALBERT O. HIRSCHMAN was tortured by Spanish Nationalists, exiled by the Nazis, and mocked by his colleagues. Yet in a world of dour economists, he was among the sunniest and most insightful. His philosophy of “disequilibria”—derived in part from his love of the arts—saw inconsistency and change as integral to success. After all, what is an economy—or a story—without a conflict? A truly cosmopolitan thinker whose vision was expansive, Hirschman embraced difference, recombining letters into puns and political philosophies into tolerance. In doing so, he inverted Tolstoy’s famous dictum, proving if all unhappy economists are alike, one was happy in his own way. We spoke to Hirschman’s biographer, Yale history professor JEREMY ADELMAN, a pretty sunny and insightful guy himself.

conduit: It sounds like Hirschman didn’t see a clear duality between success and failure. There isn’t only one way to go about things and it’s okay to risk failure to discover another kind of success.

jeremy adelman: You’re right, but no failure has any value unless there is a way to learn from it. Of course, there are some failures that are mass successes. Hirschman really fastened on this in the ’60s in evaluating his World Bank projects. He argued that sometimes World Bank projects and audacious reforms fail in what that they set out to do, but still have other side effects and unintended consequences that are even more important. If you look for hard certainties, you might close off opportunities to learn from these side effects, which is why he encouraged an open system.

conduit: In other words, failure—or at least the risk of failure—is necessary for true innovation.

adelman: In some respects, yes. Although sometimes you can be successful all around. The point is you shouldn’t count on it. If you don’t get 100% success, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’ve done is a complete disaster. You don’t have to swing from one extreme to the other, just keep your eyes open to the possibility that multiple things are going on. But to get back to your earlier point about the Hirschman’s personal relation to this, there is one thing to keep in mind: Despite his tendency to celebrate possibility, there was a lot of pain in his life. A lot of his close friends and relatives died along the way. There was a personal cost to the kind of thinking that he was trying to develop. In some respects you could say he masked these negatives; that he went out of his way to hide the bad news in order to hang on to his optimism. One of the poignant parts of working on his biography was interviewing his wife, Sarah, and learning that she felt like she had very little access to his bad memories. Hirschman just refused to talk about some things. So while he was an advocate of openness and learning from failure, one senses that there were catastrophes in his life for which there was nothing redeeming. And this was not easy for him to address and think about.