Exit, Voice, and Empire

Economist Otto Hirschman defined the concepts of “voice” and “exit” to refer to firms or political institutions.

If you don’t like the way your group works, you can exercise voice by participating in the decision-making process: voting, registering grievances, lobbying, writing letters to the editor, making your case in a meeting, and so on.  Or, you can exercise exit by leaving the group: emigrating, quitting your job, buying from a different company, forking the project, starting your own meetup, etc.

Exit, in many ways, is more attractive than voice. Voice requires conflict, persuasion, coalition-building: in short, politics. Voice is slow; exit is fast. Voice is often coercive; exit is peaceful.  Voice is messy; exit is clean. Balaji Srinivasan thinks exit is just plain better than voice.

In politics, ideas like seasteading, intentional communities, free cities, federalism, Archipelago, and so on, which revolve around a patchwork of voluntary communities, are based on increasing the role of exit relative to voice.  In democracies, most of what we think of as “politics” is voice.  A whole nation votes on whether we choose X or Y.  Instead, some say, we should side-step the conflict by letting the X-lovers have X and the Y-lovers have Y.  Let people vote with their feet or their dollars.

The problem with exit is that it’s not always practical to fragment groups into ever smaller splinters. There are returns to scale in large companies. There are network effects to living in large cities that become commercial and cultural hubs.  There are advantages to having a common language, common technological conventions, shared communication networks, and so on, across wide numbers of people.  And when one group is hugely dominant and successful, it’s more in your interest to try to shift it slightly towards your point of view than to try to “build your own” from scratch.

As long as there are network effects and advantages to large-scale organizations, there will be reasons to use voice rather than exit.

Empires are the original large-scale organizations. And empires have provided many historical prototypes for the advantages of unified institutions. Roman roads and Roman law.  Qin Shi Huang Di’s unification of language, weights, and measures. The railroads, telegraphs, and trade routes of the British Empire.  The metric system and the Napoleonic Code.

Empires, by definition, do not rule over a single “people”, so they must accommodate cultural diversity. Sometimes they were remarkably tolerant.  (The Jews have traditionally remembered Darius and Alexander fondly.)  Imperial rules have a quality of impartiality, compared with local customs; they must be applicable to a vast and diverse population.

It’s often in your interest to belong to an empire.  The empire has the technology, the comforts of civilization, the military power.  Secede, and you’ll be “free”, but poor, provincial, and vulnerable.

There are profound problems with academic science, for instance. That doesn’t mean it’s obvious that one should just do science outside of academia.  The universities still have the top people, the funds, the equipment, and so on.  It’s not clear in every case that your new fledgling institute will do better than the old Leviathan.

You might choose voice over exit if you want the dominant institution to be more inclusive. Is it better to give gays civil marriage, or for gays to champion non-marital romantic arrangements?  The pro-marriage argument says that marriage is the dominant social institution, it comes with useful advantages, so gays should want to be included in that institution.  Gay marriage proponents want in, not out.  Marriage is nifty; it’s easier to gain access to an existing nifty thing than to create an alternative of equal niftiness.

Imperial structures — by which I mean, rules and institutions meant to work at large scale, for diverse populations — can be made more universal, abstract, and customizable, up to a point.  Chinese writing is standardized; Chinese pronunciation is local.  That which needs to be shared across an empire should follow a single rule; everything else should be up to local or individual choice.  Think of this like a structure with a steel skeleton clothed in colorful tissue paper.  A few rules are firm and universal; everything else is up to choice.

This heuristic shows up everywhere where there are network effects, not just in politics.  Think of any social media platform.  The steel skeleton is the site’s code; a page/feed/tumblr/etc has a certain structure.  The tissue paper is the content, which is endlessly customizable.  The skeleton is not truly impartial: the structure of the site does shape the culture.  But it aims at impartiality.  It has an impartial flavor. Wikipedia is more successful than Conservapedia because Wikipedia is structured to be as universal and neutral as possible.

In an imperial structure, there isn’t much voice.  The rules are hard to change, and the emperor’s power is absolute.  Ideally, though, the rules are somewhat abstract or unbiased.  This allows them to be more persistent over time: the strength of different factions may rise and fall, and you’d like to have a structure that endures those shifts.  This makes some kinds of “tolerance” or “inclusiveness” or “cosmopolitanism” very much in the interest of the empire.

A limited form of exit is used within the empire, to choose local customs within subgroups that still have access to the imperial resources and play by the “skeleton” of imperial ground rules.  True exit, leaving the empire altogether, is much more costly, and usually not worth it.

Empires, I think, basically map to “no voice, plenty of freedom to mini-‘exit’ within the boundaries of the empire, true exit is high opportunity cost to the emigrant but harmless to the empire.”

Small, tight-knit personal communities have pretty much the opposite structure.  Imagine a five-person startup, or a nuclear family.  Voice obviously plays a big role here — if you don’t like something your spouse is doing, you talk to them about it.  When you have a group so small that it would cease to function if it split, communal cooperation begins to make sense.  It even makes sense to have the intuition that unanimity or consensus should be necessary for a decision; if one disgruntled person could destroy a project, it’s important to make sure everybody’s on board.

Internal diversity is impractical in very small groups; if you’re making turkey for Thanksgiving, everybody has to eat turkey, or at least be satisfied with a plate full of sides.  Hard-and-fast rules also don’t make a lot of sense.  The right thing to do in a situation is always a function of the people involved. Things get very granular at small scales, and it matters that Bob can’t stand Alice and Eve is having a family emergency and Dave is being a prima donna but he’s the best geneticist we have.

So very small, personal groups are more like “lots of voice, no mini-‘exit’, true exit is dangerous to the group but can be cheap for the emigrant.”

Should you reform or reject a failing institution?

Would you rather operate in something more like an empire or more like a family?

In a family, you can negotiate if you don’t like how things are being done.  In an empire, you can (up to a point) go off and do your own thing, but the ground rules of the empire are rigid.  An empire has the advantages of scale — network effects, organizational infrastructure, lots of resources.  A family has the advantages of smallness — it can take account of individual needs and situations, it’s “closer to the ground.”

What I’d like to propose is taking account of tradeoffs and being aware of what tactics are appropriate to what situations.

You can’t have a “national discussion about X” because America is a nation of 300 million people, not a friend cluster.  You also can’t split up your meetup group or activist organization every time somebody has a disagreement, because you won’t have a group any more.

Exit always has costs. If you leave an empire, you lose its large-scale resources. If you leave a family, you can break the family.  Exit is worth it if you can easily get what you need outside the group, but it’s not free.

Balaji’s idea of tech companies building better alternative versions of existing institutions is promising, but not because exit is always awesome. Rather, it works to the extent that technological infrastructure can substitute for institutional infrastructure. If what you really need to run a school, say, is superstar teachers, good programmers, and adaptive learning algorithms (in the Coursera/Khan Academy vein), then the infrastructure of the public school system or traditional academia is just not very useful, and you can exit without much opportunity cost.

It’s telling that Balaji talks about web-based education, not about homeschooling, which is also a form of exit from public school. But homeschooling is not scalable — you do it one family at a time.  That makes it harder to make homeschooling a real alternative for vast numbers of people.  Using the tech industry to make independent education convenient and memetically viral — that’s a different story.  It has the potential to make independent education into a new kind of “empire.”

I’d say that Silicon Valley is a growing empire (or interlocking collection of empires) that is beginning to poach people from the post-New Deal American empire(s).  It’s not about people leaving the big city to homestead on the lonesome prairie; it’s people leaving the big city to go to another big city.

Exit from a big institution is easy in two kinds of situations: either you don’t need big institutions, or you have another big institution to emigrate to.  “Tune in, turn on, drop out” means telling people they don’t need an empire at all.  “Go to App Academy, not college” means telling people they can switch from one empire to a different one.  They’re both forms of exit, but they’re structurally very different.

My own view is that empires are very useful in a lot of contexts, and that the ideal (not always attainable) way to deal with a dying empire is to build a new empire to compete with it.  Radical decentralization (like 19th-century homesteading) tends not to last forever; people will always be building cities, businesses will always be trying to become big, frontiers get populated, there are normal human pressures towards centralization.  Institutions start off small and scrappy, grow to mature success, and then become cargo-culted and corrupt.  It doesn’t make sense to fight that life cycle; it makes sense to join it, by being the scrappy upstart David taking on an already-failing Goliath.

7 thoughts on “Exit, Voice, and Empire

    • Ah, I’m still stuck on this one.
      I know, sooner or later, one has to choose, and I kind of know which way I’d go, but I’m not ready. I’m really, really not sure I’d like what happens if you try to build an Athens.

  1. The neoreactionaries are generally wrong, but useful to think about. My hypothetical neoreactionary would claim that value has NEVER been created via ‘voice’ in a political sense. My inner libertarian memeticist would claim that major value creation attributed to voice within an imperial system has generally been created via corruption, e.g. collusive and ultimately institutionalized evasion of imperial systems by interested commercial classes which eventually use the power gained by evading imperial power and the mechanisms developed for evading imperial power to take over the empire de-facto, then ritually express a philosophical position that justifies their take-over by naming the mechanism behind their might, within an implicit context that *of course* might makes right.

    • That would makes sense.
      But corruption might be a type of voice? Making it worth people’s while to cooperate with you, making your coalition indispensable. It’s influencing the community, not leaving the community. Voice doesn’t have to be literally voting.

  2. Great post! It’s worth noting that voice and exit aren’t necessarily exclusive. Programming languages are a good example. There are mainstream languages (e.g. the C/C++-inspired family of languages) and more obscure ones that often have different or more advanced features (lisp, Haskell, SmallTalk etc.) While only a minority of people ever use the later languages, the major effect they have is downstream. Once someone has tried a new feature and shown that it works, it’s often adopted more broadly. So mainstream languages adopt the features of the research languages, which ends up affecting a large number of people.

    Depending on your situation, exiting and showing your philosophies work in practice might be the fastest way to change the empire.

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