Voluntary or Forced Exit

I was listening to another episode of the Glenn Loury Show today on the way to the office and Glenn (a few years ago now) brought up the book by Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, Loyalty. It’s about what happens when businesses or states break down and consumers or citizens need to decide whether to exit, voice dissent, or remain loyal. Hirschman doesn’t apply his argument to Christianity but I couldn’t help think of Roman Catholicism, the Reformation, and Roman Catholic defenders (at all costs, it seems) while Glenn was speaking.

I couldn’t find any reviews of Hirschman in the religious journals but Margaret O’Brien Steinfels did apply the book’s insights to the Roman Catholic Church a few years ago:

One out of every three Americans raised in the church is no longer a Catholic. These “formers” make up the second or third largest religious group in America (depending on whether Baptists are counted in their unity or diversity). In marketing terms, half these Catholics have chosen another brand of religion; the other half are “nones”—unaffiliated. It’s as if roughly 12 million people had forsaken Crest for Tom’s toothpaste, while the other 12 million stopped brushing their teeth altogether. Procter & Gamble, which makes Crest, would work hard to win back those customers: perhaps by banishing turquoise toothpaste or reducing the price. Not so the Catholic Church; it is not a manufacturer and need not be as enterprising as P&G. Does that mean lost customers are more valuable than lost sheep?

Albert O. Hirschman, a brilliant and iconoclastic economist (recently celebrated in a seven-hundred-page biography), laid out a plausible explanation for this kind of phenomenon in his classic study Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which focuses on organizations that don’t function effectively and their dissatisfied members or customers. Some leave (the “exit” of the title); some stay (the “loyalty”). Hirschman asked why.

He recognized that exiting is easy if we’re talking toothpaste. Consumers dissatisfied with their usual brand can try another. Loyalty is more likely with organizations that invite a strong allegiance, possess a monopoly on something valued, or exact a high price for leaving—for example, families, religions, political parties, and totalitarian governments. Hirschman thinks that a strong sense of loyalty to the group makes exiting a tough, even unthinkable choice for discontented members. Instead, the dissatisfied voice their criticism rather than exit.

Back in the 1960s, when Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, voice was in vogue. Women were challenging patriarchy, Democrats protesting the war in Vietnam, Eastern European dissidents questioning Marxist orthodoxy, and Catholics debating Vatican II. These were the voices of critical members who would not or could not exit. Today the cost of exit has declined in all these arenas. Marriages became more egalitarian and divorce laws were relaxed. Ronald Reagan won the votes of FDR Democrats. The Soviet Union collapsed. The Catholic Church lost its monopoly on salvation.

Steinfels, on the progressive side of the church, could only think of Hirschman in the context of Vatican II, updating Roman Catholicism, and traditionalist opposition to such reforms. She did not think about the situation of Protestants in the sixteenth century who voiced their grievances and could not continue to do so because the hierarchy disenfranchised them within the church. This was not a voluntary but a coerced exit.

And yet, Steinfels point may have something to say to folks like Bryan and the Jasons (and their followers) who seem to embody a form of loyalty that approximates blind faith:

Some would argue that the Catholic Church, claiming a monopoly on truth as well as salvation, has no course correction to make. That has been the stand of recent popes and their episcopal appointees, who have rescinded or tinkered with Vatican II reforms and ruled out further change. Complaints have gone unheard, while conforming members have been embraced. And many have left.

Parents and friends of former Catholics now singing in a Baptist choir, serving on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, or meditating in a Buddhist monastery may be relieved that they’re still praying, still believing in something. Perhaps even the “lazy monopolists” consider that these sheep are not lost, simply misplaced. But what of the “nones,” those who abandon religion altogether or just drift away from it. We seem strangely indifferent to their exit. If 12 million people stopped brushing their teeth, we’d all take notice.

Though Hirschman is inventive in pursuing the combination and permutations of exit, voice, and loyalty that might insure an organization’s long-term survival, he recognizes that efforts to change an organization may come to nothing. He sums up this eventuality on a religious note: “the martyr’s death is exit at its most irreversible and argument at its most irrefutable.” It is ironic to think of those who give up their Catholic faith as martyrs, but their departure is at least as drastic as martyrdom. Lazy monopolists take note.

Actually, thinking of certain Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as martyrs is not all that ironic. Regarding those who appeal to circular arguments like motives of credibility or invincible ignorance as lazy sure looks obvious.

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14 thoughts on “Voluntary or Forced Exit

  1. Darryl,

    You need to stop thinking and repeat after Bryan:

    “RCs discovered the church, Protestants choose it like consumers. RCs discovered the church, Protestants choose it like consumers.”

    “Nothing a Protestant has said or can say, in any possible world, invalidates anything that the Roman Catholicism of Plato’s Bryan’s world of the forms has done or taught.”

    Then you will understand.

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  2. DGH, don’t know how much exposure you have had to Hirschman, but The Passions and The Interest and The Rhetoric of Reaction are worth reading in addition to the work you cite. He was prolific, readable and concise. I think he is still considered somewhat foundational in public choice poly sci and law and economics programs. One of the weaknesses I see in most public intellectuals on the conservative side is a refusal to engage with thinkers like Hirschman. Instead they waste time trashing Scotus and Occam, again and again.

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  3. Dan, You should listen to the podcast at bloggingheads. Loury is fulsome in his praise.

    I’ve only seen Hirschman cited but have not read him. I’ll try to remedy this.

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  4. “She did not think about the situation of Protestants in the sixteenth century who voiced their grievances and could not continue to do so because the hierarchy disenfranchised them within the church. This was not a voluntary but a coerced exit.”

    Oy vey. Yes, how dare the church not try to fight heresies or affirm orthodoxy. Luther was given 4 years after the theses and many meetings to recant. I guess the Arians also didnt get a fair shake because of that mean council condemning its views. Were the Remonstrants at Dordt disenfranchised and given a coerced exit as well?

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  5. Clete,

    Oy vey. Yes, how dare the church not try to fight heresies or affirm orthodoxy. Luther was given 4 years after the theses and many meetings to recant. I guess the Arians also didnt get a fair shake because of that mean council condemning its views.

    1. Your church doesn’t act as if Luther is a heretic anymore.

    2. Arius wasn’t promised safe conduct and then captured and murdered (Hus).

    3. Arius wasn’t given a show trial like Luther was.

    4. Your papa looks like he’s about ready to celebrate the Reformation with mainline Lutherans.

    And we could go on. Leo and Trent and the rest weren’t about thoughtful refutation of heresy. It was a massive freakout that tried to stop the hemorrhaging of people from a corrupt institution that infallibly claimed powers it now infallibly claims it never should have claimed.

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  6. James Young, amazing indeed.

    And now Pope Francis has his plane ticket to go to Sweden to celebrate the heresies former popes fought.

    Why in the world would Luther ever have to recant today?

    Watch out for those rake handles.

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  7. @ Robert the Valiant,

    the RC commission on child sexual abuse by priests kicks the last member who was actually abused to the curb

    “…he said the Vatican’s inaction in the face of continuing cases of children being raped and molested ‘made me lose faith in the process and lose faith in Pope Francis.'”

    It all goes to motives of incredibility.

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