Under any economic, social, or political system, individuals, business firms, and organizations in general are subject to lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, virtuous, or otherwise functional behavior. No matter how well a society’s basic institutions are devised, failures of some actors to live up to the behavior which is expected of them are bound to occur, if only for all kinds of accidental reasons. Each society learns to live with a certain amount of such dysfunctional or mis-behavior; but lest the misbehavior feed on itself and lead to general decay, society must be able to marshal from within itself forces which will make as many of the faltering actors as possible revert to the behavior required for its proper functioning. This book undertakes initially a reconnaissance of these forces as they operate in the economy; the concepts to be developed will, however, be found to be applicable not only to economic operators such as business firms, but to a wide variety of noneconomic organizations and situations.
While moralists and political scientists have been much concerned with rescuing individuals from immoral behavior, societies from corruption, and governments from decay, economists have paid little attention to repairable lapses
of economic actors. There are two reasons for this neglect. First, in economics one assumes either fully and undeviatingly rational behavior or, at the very least, an unchanging level
of rationality on the part of the economic actors. Deterioration of a firm’s performance may result from an adverse shift in supply and demand conditions while the willingness and ability of the firm to maximize profits (or growth rate or whatever) are unimpaired; but it could also reflect some “loss of maximizing aptitude or energy” with supply and demand factors being
un-changed. The latter interpretation would immediately raise the question how the firm’s maximizing energy can be brought back up to par. But the usual interpretation is the former one; and in that case, the reversibility of changes in objective supply and demand conditions is much more in doubt. In other words, economists have typically assumed that a firm that falls behind (or gets ahead) does so “for a good reason”;
the concept—central to this book—of a random and more or less easily “repairable lapse” has been alien to their reasoning.
The second cause of the economist’s unconcern about lapses is related to the first. In the traditional model of the competitive economy, recovery from any lapse is not really essential. As one firm loses out in the competitive struggle, its market share is taken up and its factors are hired by others, including newcomers; in the upshot, total resources may well be better allocated. With this picture in mind, the economist can afford to watch lapses of any one of his patients (such as business firms) with far greater equanimity than either the moralist who is convinced of the intrinsic worth of every one of his patients (individuals) or the political scientist whose patient (the state) is unique and irreplaceable.
Having accounted for the economist’s unconcern we can immediately question its justification: for the image of the economy as a fully competitive system where changes in the fortunes of individual firms are exclusively caused by basic shifts of comparative advantage is surely a defective representation of the real world. In the first place, there are the well-known, large realms of monopoly, oligopoly, and monopolistic competition: deterioration in performance of firms operating in that part of the economy could result in more or less permanent pockets
of inefficiency and neglect; it must obviously be viewed with an alarm approaching that of the political scientist who sees his polity’s integrity being threatened by strife, corruption,
or boredom. But even where vigorous competition prevails, unconcern with the possibility of restoring temporarily laggard firms to vigor is hardly justified. Precisely in sectors where there are large numbers of firms competing with one another in similar conditions, declines in the fortunes of individual firms are just as likely to be due to random, subjective factors that are reversible or remediable as to permanent adverse shifts in cost and demand conditions. In these circumstances, mechanisms of recuperation would play a most useful role in avoiding social losses as well as human hardship.
At this point, it will be interjected that such a mechanism of recuperation is readily available through competition itself. Is not competition supposed to keep a firm “on its toes”? And if the firm has already slipped, isn’t it the experience of declining revenue and the threat of extinction through competition that will cause its managers to make a major effort to bring performance back up to where it should be?
There can be no doubt that competition is one major mechanism of recuperation. It will here be argued, however (1) that the implications of this particular function of competition have not been adequately spelled out and (2) that a major alternative mechanism can come into play either when the competitive mechanism is unavailable or as a complement to it.
The argument to be presented starts with the firm producing saleable outputs for customers; but it will be found to be largely—and, at times, principally—applicable to organizations (such as voluntary associations, trade unions, or political parties) that provide services to their members without direct monetary counterpart. The performance
of a firm or an organization is assumed to be subject to deterioration for unspecified, random causes which are neither so compelling nor so durable as to prevent a return to previous performance levels, provided managers direct their attention and energy to that task. The deterioration in performance is reflected most typically and generally, that is, for both firms and other organizations, in an absolute or comparative deterioration of the quality
of the product or service provided.1
Management then finds out about its failings via two alternative routes:
(1) Some customers stop buying the firm’s products or some members leave the organization: this is the exit option. As a result, revenues drop, membership declines, and management is impelled to search for ways and means to correct whatever faults have led to exit.
(2) The firm’s customers or the organization’s members express their dissatisfaction directly to management or to some other authority to which management is subordinate or through general protest addressed to anyone who cares to listen: this is the voice option. As a result, management once again engages in a search for the causes and possible cures of customers’ and members’ dissatisfaction.
The remainder of this book is largely devoted to the
comparative analysis of these two options and to their interplay. I will investigate questions such as: Under what conditions will the exit option prevail over the voice option and vice versa? What is the comparative efficiency of the two options as mechanisms of recuperation? In what situations do both options come into play jointly? What institutions could serve to perfect each of the two options as mechanisms of recuperation? Are institutions perfecting the exit option compatible with those designed to improve the working of the voice option?
Before setting out to answer some of these questions, I shall now step back briefly and indicate how I conceive the subject of this book to be related to economic and social science thought around us.
Talking with students of animal behavior (at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences) about the social organization of primates I learnt about the smoothness and efficiency with which leadership succession, a problem human societies have found so intractable, was handled in certain baboon bands. Here is how the process is described for a typical band of Hamadryas baboons lorded over by one male leader:
Sub-adult males steal very young females from their mothers and attend them with every semblance of solicitous maternal care. The young female is rigorously controlled, and repeated retrieval trains her not to go away . . . At this stage there is no sexual behaviour, the female being yet two to three years from child bearing . . . As these young interlopers mature and the overlord ages, the younger animal starts initiating group movements although the direction of eventual movement is dependent upon the older animal’s choice. A highly complex relationship
develops between the two animals which, by paying close attention to one another and by reciprocal “notification,” cooperate in governing group movement. Old males retain command of group direction but gradually relinquish sexual control over their females to the younger male animal . . . It seems that eventually old males resign entirely from their original reproduction units but retain great influence within the band as a whole, and young males refer to them continuously particularly before developing the direction of march.2
Compare this marvel of gradualness and continuity with the violent ups and downs to which human societies have always been subject as “bad” government followed upon “good,” and as strong or wise or good leaders were succeeded by weaklings, fools, or criminals.
The reason for which humans have failed to develop a finely built social process assuring continuity and steady quality in leadership is probably that they did not have to. Most human societies are marked by the existence of a surplus above subsistence. The counterpart of this surplus is society’s ability to take considerable deterioration in its stride. A lower level of performance, which would mean disaster for baboons, merely causes discomfort, at least initially, to humans.
The wide latitude human societies have for deterioration is the inevitable counterpart of man’s increasing productivity and control over his environment. Occasional decline as well as prolonged mediocrity—in relation to achievable performance levels—must be counted among the many penalties of progress. A priori it would seem futile, therefore, to look for social arrangements that
would wholly eliminate any sort of deterioration of polities and of their various constituent entities. Because of the surplus and the resulting latitude, any homeostatic controls with which human societies might be equipped are bound to be rough.
Recognition of this unpleasant truth has been impeded by a recurring utopian dream: that economic progress, while increasing the surplus above subsistence, will also bring with it disciplines and sanctions of such severity as to rule out any backsliding that may be due, for example, to faulty political processes. In the eighteenth century the expansion of commerce and of industry was sometimes hailed not so much because of the increase in well-being that it would make possible, but because it would bring with it powerful restraints on the willfulness of the prince and thereby reduce and perhaps eliminate the system’s latitude for deterioration. One characteristic passage from Sir James Steuart’s Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767) will suffice to make the point:
How hurtful soever the natural and immediate effects of political revolutions may have been formerly, when the mechanism of government was more simple than at present, they are now brought under such restrictions, by the complicated system of modern oeconomy, that the evil which might otherwise result from them may be guarded against with ease . . .
The power of a modern prince, let it be by the constitution of his kingdom ever so absolute, immediately becomes limited so soon as he establishes the plan of oeconomy . . . If his authority formerly resembled the solidity and force of the wedge (which may indifferently be made use of, for splitting of timber, stones and other hard bodies, and which may be thrown aside and taken up again at pleasure), it will at length come to resemble the delicacy of the watch, which is good for no other purpose than to mark the progression of time, and which is immediately destroyed, if put to any other use, or touched with any but
the gentlest hand . . . modern oeconomy, therefore, is the most effectual bridle ever was invented against the folly of despotism.3
This noble hope echoes nearly two hundred years later in the writings of a Latin American intellectual similarly predicting, against all likelihood, that economic progress and latitude for deterioration will be negatively, rather than positively, correlated:
[In the pre-coffee era, policy makers] are lyrical and romantic because they cannot yet defer to a product whose output is constantly on the increase. It is a time of childhood and play. Coffee will bring maturity and seriousness. It will not permit Colombians to continue playing fast and loose with the national economy. The ideological absolutism will disappear and the epoch of moderation and sobriety will dawn . . . Coffee is incompatible with anarchy.4
History has cruelly disappointed the expectations of both Sir James Steuart and Nieto Arteta that economic growth and technical progress would erect secure barriers against “despotism,” “anarchy,” and irresponsible behavior in general. Yet their line of thought is hardly extinct. It is, in fact, not unrelated to today’s widespread belief that a major war is unthinkable and therefore impossible in the nuclear age.
The common assumption of these constructs is simply stated: while technical progress increases society’s surplus above subsistence it also introduces a mechanism of the utmost complexity and delicacy, so that certain types of social misbehavior which previously had unfortunate
but tolerable consequences would now be so clearly disastrous that they will be more securely barred than before.
As a result society is, and then again it is not, in a surplus situation: it is producing a surplus, but is not at liberty not to produce it or to produce less of it than is possibl...