Exit or Voice? How About Neither?

The very first post on this blog, published almost two years ago now, led with “Give us your hands, not just your voices.” I thought of that as I read a Reuters piece this morning entitled The Year We Gave Up on Government. It’s a fascinating piece, with a number of really thought-provoking observations and an analysis that goes all the way back into our country’s history to explain the current zeitgeist. (I was an American Studies major; I love this stuff.) But on the subject of the American response to failed government, Chrystia Freeman has missed the point. And it’s a pretty important point for our times.

The public relations firm Edelman’s yearly global study on the public’s confidence in institutions shows that while last year, everyone was outraged at corporations, this year, we’re mad as hell at government. In the US, it seems the debt ceiling drama in particular has not exactly endeared our politicians to us. Elsewhere, it’s high speed rail crashes and more debt crises. (The difference between politics and government is glossed over here, and the subject of a later post. But to understand how people react to this decline in confidence, Freeman looks to the economist Albert O. Hirschman.

In 1970, while at Harvard, Mr. Hirschman wrote an influential meditation on how people respond to the decline of firms, organizations and states. He concluded that there are two options: exit — stop shopping at the store, quit your job, leave your country; and voice — speak to the manager, complain to your boss, or join the political opposition.

Exit or Voice. Coke or Pepsi. Those are your choices. You have to know where I’m going with this. If you know anything at all about Code for America, you must get that the whole reason this movement exists is that there is a generation (roughly speaking, maybe more just a group of people) for whom those are not the choices. I don’t think the Code for America fellows and the hundreds of others who work so hard to improve government from the outside really thought about Exit or Voice, considered them, and then rejected them or rebelled against them. I think they just grew up tinkering, making, fixing and hacking, and when they came of the age to consider the system that would take a third of their earnings for the rest of their lives, they proceeded to start tinkering, making, fixing and hacking it. A perfectly natural response.

Freeman points out that Exit is also a perfectly natural response, given the origins of our nation.

Mr. Hirschman came up with his theory of exit and voice in the United States, and he believed that exit had been accorded “an extraordinarily privileged position in the American political tradition.” That was partly because the United States was populated by exiters and their descendants — immigrants who chose to leave home rather than reform it — and partly because for much of American history the frontier made it possible to choose exit without even leaving the country.

I would argue that in the past twenty years, a solid chunk of American society has subscribed to the notion that the Internet was the new frontier, and a limitless one at that, and so the disgruntled could simply draw their own map, create their own circles, and be done with it. And it’s the Millennials who have brought us back down to earth and reminded us that the lesson of the Internet is that shared endeavor has value, that pooling resources is a good idea, and that government is the way we do things together that we can’t do individually. Which is why Millennials are the most pro-government generation in decades, however disgusted they would be by the debt ceiling brinksmanship, if they looked up from their laptops and smart phones long enough to notice. They are tapping into another innately American tradition, one of fundamental optimism, invention, and practicality. They’ve never met a system they couldn’t participate in, hack, mash-up, add value to or improve. And government is already meeting their expectations, providing data, enabling the creation of apps, and slowly adopting the tools of the Internet to make it easier for us to do the important work of governing ourselves together.

As much as I enjoyed this article, I’ll take issue with Freeman’s final point as well. She ends the piece: “It is no wonder so many of us distrust our governments. But in this age of exit, do we have much chance of reforming them?” But just prior, she argues that “competing, private-sector-operated alternatives to the public sector” only weaken our public institutions. She looks at it through Hirschman’s lens. I look at it through the lens of the hundreds of entrepreneurs, hackers, open government advocates and civic leaders I’ve met in the past three years who are changing the landscape of government. Yes, casual carpooling or even startups like Uber can threaten revenue to public transit, and as Clay Shirky described in Cognitive Surplus, governments can fight back by asserting their monopolies. But this shuts down much-needed innovation, and it’s shortsighted. (It’s also probably futile). This movement will need to work from the top down and the bottom up, and it will need to work from the inside and the outside. You could see Kickstarter as a private alternative to grants for the arts, Freecycle as competition for the municipal dump, or even TurboTax as shaming the IRS for their practically unusable interface. These businesses think outside the box in ways that government is generally precluded from, and they point the way to a civil society that actually works. That’s how you create confidence in government.

Exit, Voice, or neither: Make. Here’s a different choice, as expressed in Obama’s inauguration speech.

…It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things, some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

If the men and women working to reform government or just build a better society are “obscure in their labor,” that’s fine by me. Let’s not distract them from their important work.

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Stephanie Slade

“But this shuts down much-needed innovation, and it’s shortsighted. (It’s also probably futile).” So, so true.

Joe Flood

Really interesting article. The debt crisis and the recent downgrade highlight that government is broken. Parts of it work well but much of it (like the examples you cite) is out of step with citizen expectations. We want a government that’s as easy to use as Amazon. Whether innovation comes from the inside or outside, it has to occur because it’s what Americans demand.

Mark Hammer

I like the exit-or-voice distinction. Smart, powerful model.

In some respects you can see that many who might otherwise pursue careers in the legislative or bureaucratic side of government might decide that the NGO sector was the better aternative. In other words, if I can’t have the degree of voice in government that I expect, then I’ll exit and try the other route.

Which brings me to something I’ve been touting for a while: the paradoxical impact that “open government” may well have on citizen engagement. Contemporary psychological theories of fairness/justice note what is referred to a “referrent cognitions”. We judge the fairness of what we encounter in comparison to counter-examples we can imagine of what could have happened instead. If the actions we encounter do not compare favourably with the more desirable course of action we believe could have taken place, we perceive it as less fair. They could have done this, but the S.O.B.s chose to do that. So bloody unfair.

As government purports to move towards providing “voice”, the likelihood of my voice (as J.Q. Citizen) being listened to, authentically, in a way that I can readily perceive as having happened, goes down. This, despite the outward impression that it would be listened to, simply because you can’t listen to everybody, and you can’t get back to everybody and tell them “You made a good point, but here are the reasons why something else needed to take priority”. Will civic engagement ultimately be diminished by confronting defeated expectations about how much they will be listened to? Will there be enough perceived voice to prevent mass exit?

Thanks for the post and link, Abhi. Much appreciated.

Jay Johnson

Totally agree, look for win-win scenarios instead of the traditional zero-sum approach. To make something better, you have to first believe that it’s possible. For those that believe, it opens up lots of opportunities.