Exit vs. voice: reacting to decline in 2017

Albert O. Hirschman

So you are worried, restless, outraged. In a little over a year, you have watched cynical, myopic politicians manipulate electorates into making disastrous choices. Meanwhile, precious attention is being diverted from issues that really matter, like climate change, privacy, inequality and regulating AI. You know you will personally have to bear some of these costs, even though you had no part in those choices. You are seeing your rights reduced (Brexit), your national prestige sinking (Trump), the effectiveness of your government curtailed (German elections), your non-white or wrong-surname friends and family members being humiliated and made feel unwelcome (all of the above). Now what?

One of the heroes of my youth, Albert Hirschman, has an answer to that. You can do one of three things:

  1. Exit. Refuse to touch the problem, and leave your nation or community behind to deal with it. They made the mess, let them clean up.
  2. Voice. Engage with the status quo. State your concern and grievance, and try to change it through applying some kind of pressure.
  3. Loyalty. Suck it up, and live with it. It's not that bad after all, at least not for you personally.
Loyalty is, of course, far and away the most popular method. This is because most things in human affairs work reasonably well. With your attention absorbed by corporate greed, climate change and the refugee crisis it is easy to overlook that traffic laws and the drinking water infrastructure work quite well, at least in my corner of the world. Most people will simply stay loyal and move on. But what if you can't live with it? Do you exit or voice? and how?

In 2017, as I pondered these questions in relations to my own life and work, I stumbled onto two new books that argued different corners of the question.

The first one is Lobbying for change, by my countryman and co-conspirator Alberto Alemanno. Alberto, a legal scholar, makes a resounding case for voice. His experience as an activist and campaigner taught him that decision makers are often much more open to take on board ideas and suggestions than you might think. This, he argues, is especially true when ideas and suggestions come from citizens, because a citizen’s economic interests are thought to align with that of society as a whole, or at least of large groups within society.

Alberto’s main intuition is this: citizen lobbying is fuelled by discontent, but it ends up producing greater societal cohesion. This is because lobbyists are by definition not themselves decision makers. So, nothing they do will work if it does not channel that discontent into a proposal that benefits them, and that the other interested parties can at least live with. In order to protect her interest or argue her cause, the citizen lobbyist cannot but help the common good. The book then proceeds to plot a course for anybody willing to be a citizen lobbyist to become an affective one. In a way, it’s a user’s manual for Hirschmanian voice.

An aside is in order. Of course, in the lobbying game “interested parties” are only those who sit at the table and argue for themselves. Those who don’t (because they are politically weak, like the Roma in Europe, or because they are not human, like the climate) are fair game, and they have generally not fared well even under advanced democracies. This is, however, a problem with voice in general, not with Alberto’s contribution. In fact, citizen lobbying is meant to be cheap enough that weaker and even non-human parties can find at least some voice.

The second book is Walkaway, by science fiction author and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow. It is firmly in the exit camp – even in its title. Doctorow is an interesting author, one of a small milieu of SF writers who write honest-to-God philosophical fiction. It’s a bit like reading Gulliver’s Travels: characters spend a lot of time explaining each other the economic, philosophical and technological foundation of the imaginary societies they live in. Doctorow stands apart from other authors in this group in that he is by far the most concerned with economics : in fact he himself claims that Walkaway is really about the Coase Theorem.

Walkaway imagines a near future society where open source technology is advanced enough that people can drop out of mainstream societies in a relatively order manner, and live off the land and dirt-cheap open tech. And they do: the combined effect of automation and mounting income and wealth inequalities make it so that meaningful employment is almost impossible (unless one enjoys serving the only healthy market, that of really rich people). People are knee deep in student debt. Most of humanity has simply nothing to offer to “the economy” and the society it supports. So they walk away, and provide to their needs with the same logic that Wikipedians deploy to build Wikipedia. Initially this gives rise to a sort of dual economy, with a large fringe (maybe 5% of the population?) living in Walkaway. Later on, the mainstream economy kind of eats itself, so that the share of humans in Walkaway rises significantly. Walkaway itself becomes a sort of mainstream, with super-rich people and their minions continuing to run places like London and Singapore, but not much else.

Walkaway argues for exit because it lays out a political strategy that leads people to winning by refusing to engage. Cannot get a decent job and pay your student loan? Walk away. The police evacuates the open source compound where you live? Walk away, rebuild it 50 kilometers down the road. They take that down too? Walk away. In the end, walkaway “wins”, but that’s not even the point. The point is that you can make a better life for yourself by not engaging with the system.

Like most people reading this, I am very dissatisfied with some of the things that are going on in the world right now. I can not live with them. Which one is it going to be, voice or exit? I have been a voice guy all my life, but now I wonder. I can see a game -theoretical argument for exit: if you commit to voice, the powers that be can stall you forever, while you exhaust your energy for change in endless negotiations. Exit – walkaway – has a key advantage: if you execute well, its results do not depend on your opponent. This is not a theory, but a fact. All your energy goes into making a better life for yourself and your loved ones, on your own terms. If you believe Doctorow’s intuition, there is another advantage: if enough people exit your opponent are going to be badly hit. That gives you potentially significant clout as you walk away (even though this is not even a theory, “intuition” is a better description).

So, I guess, at a minimum, voice should not be taken for granted. Engagement and participation should be economised, and always be underpinned by an ever present, credible, threat of exit. Building “credibility” in this sense means building as much autonomy as you can. This is what we are looking into at Edgeryders. And you? Are you closer to the voice or to the exit camp?


While I’m convinced that the Exit approach can work at the scale of whole societies, I can’t prove it. It has not been done before (or has it?).

It has been done for specific, more limited challenges though. A famous example is when Linus Torvalds was unsatisfied with the cost, functionality and freedoms of existing operating systems. His creation has become the dominant solution now, with 70-90% of servers, all Android phones etc. running it.

So the ultimate question of exiters is not “how to get out”. It’s the same as that of “voicers”: How to change the system for the better?

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Oh, it has. David Graeber’s Debt claims that the whole idea of debt jubilees was more or less forced onto Babylonian kings by debt-ridden free peasants, who had already pawned off their fields, houses, wives and children, Before selling themselves into debt slavery they would take to the desert, join armed bands of pastoralists, and prey on whoever they could. As this “threatened societal cohesion”, the king would have all clay tablets recording private debt thrown into the Euphrates, and the cycle began again. Of course, these were local whole societies.

What did not happen is those folks deciding to stay out and build a different society, but then what could they have done? Once they were back into the field and farm, and once their families had returned home, they were living in a more or less state-of-the-art society. At least if you think agriculture is worth having, which they probably did (and I do too, for what it’s worth).


Interesting! Another way to frame this is that by walkaway, Commoners threaten Elites with type-L collapse (“scarcity of labor”, concept taken from here). It solved inequality, the problem that caused the walkaway in the first place, but only for a time. Just as insightful policy change or political violence can solve inequality for a time only (Peter Turchin’s secular cycles).

But what if the walkaway solution becomes much more doable and comfortable through well developed, ready-made, open source solutions. Commoners would not choose it as a measure of last resort, but much earlier. As a result, inequality oscillations would be much less pronounced, mainstream society would be and stay more equal.

But for that, the parallel, DIY walkaway society has to be a credible threat. It has to exist permanently, people have to choose this as their lifestyle, and it has to work well.

Much work to do :slight_smile:

Mmm. Anyone’s guess, really. The rate of change matters a lot. If people are slowly transitioning to [new society], it’s questionable whether they are walking away as opposed to scout out the way. At the same time, it’s not clear if a dual society can be an equilibrium or not. Doctorow seems to think that 98% mainstream (he calls it “default”) and 2% walkaway is sustainable. Default gets rid of the malcontents. Cheaper than coming down on them. But 50% walkaway may not be an equilibrium. Perhaps even 10% might be too much. One of the characters warns another:

[…] This isn’t stable. There isn’t going to be default world and walkaway world trading people forever. When you have big rich people and everyone else poor as poor, the result is… unstable.

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Hmm ok. What would “unstable” look like, though? Crackdown on the defectors, physical coercion by the elites of the default world?

On another note, maybe early emigration from Europe to the Americas could also be seen as a case of walkaway. Many troubled souls trying to start fresh. (Turned out to be a walkin from the perspective of native folks, but … abstracting from that “detail” for a second here … .)

And then again, judging from the stories of some Eritrean folks I talked to, a literal walkaway is happening there since years now. “All the young folks have gone abroad, and the parents stay back. It’s a country of old people now.” It’s an emperor largely without people, but still with all the natural resources (another crack in the viability of walkaway as a system-level solution … mmh.)

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Property rights enforcement, from anti-squat to the various tools of the copyright lobbyists.

Nah. In a colonial empire, moving to the colony is compliance (loyalty, in Hirschman’s words), not exit. [quote=“matthias, post:6, topic:7633”]
And then again, judging from the stories of some Eritrean folks I talked to, a literal walkaway is happening there since years now.

This is a better example. But even there, remittances are an act of compliance, because they inject revenue back into the economy one left behind.

As for the resources, in the book they are part of the deal. Walking away is only long-term viable if you don’t mind too much surrendering what you have, even if you built it yourself. If you fight back, you are engaging: call it “extreme voice”.

I feel, there’s also a hybrid path which can be termed ‘Exit to get Voice’ perhaps (and maybe that’s even what Cory Doctorow is describing too). There are plenty of reasons to scaffold different structures that serve me and my peers better, rather than waiting for the existing institutions to come to similar positions. Once those scaffolds show other ways are viable, this then enables your Voice being heard to enact change that impacts also the existing institutions. It is Voice in a roundabout way, by proving you are not dependend on the incumbent structures and able to Exit, thus upending the power balance that favors maintaining the status quo. When I first got into Open Data / Open Gov I decided to not do lobbying or political organizing, but organize my own path for action and use the empowerment that gave me towards the same desired change. In my perspective Edgeryders itself is an example of such a hybrid too: many of the network members have Exited in various ways, yet the whole definitely engages with the incumbent structures, but might well have been Voiceless but for having formed the network.

So essentially along the lines of what @matthias says, but then without the need for a full parallel Walkaway society as alternative, just a wide portfolio of opt-outs. [quote=“matthias, post:4, topic:7633”]
But what if the walkaway solution becomes much more doable and comfortable through well developed, ready-made, open source solutions. Commoners would not choose it as a measure of last resort, but much earlier. As a result, inequality oscillations would be much less pronounced, mainstream society would be and stay more equal.
But for that, the parallel, DIY walkaway society has to be a credible threat. It has to exist permanently, people have to choose this as their lifestyle, and it has to work well.

Opt-outs capital holders already have (like offshoring), but then for the rest of us.


As I posted in the Riot thread, is it really walking away if you use network technology, even if it is open source? It still depends on hardware that requires industry to produce. Thus it is a selective walkaway. This is how my earlier life went…drop out of the parts that don’t work and live/work together in mutual support, but still use tools made by the greater society.

I did used to know this guy who only wore clothes he made, sewn with cloth he wove, from thread he spun, stitched with needles he made from animals he killed…I lost track of him but I bet he couldn’t keep that up for too many years.

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Do I miss it, or all this does not contemplate any gameplay from the counterpart?

In the example from Graeber’s Debt mentioned in the comments, the move of waiving debts is sufficient to attract the exiters back, and abuse of them (?) until the next cycle…

Since, like another comment mentions, complete exit is really hard… is Walkaway not describing a tactic, rather than a strategy, with what should ensue of it?

Also, Wikipedia is an interesting example of success… but like many other commons alternatives, it is a market success rather than a social walkaway (contributors and users will not walkaway from other, asymmetric knowledge sources, like scientific publishing… or do I misunderstand something?)…


I did not mention it explicitly, but Doctorow did put significant effort in imagining default’s reaction. There is no “central command” Mostly, it’s about property rights: anything worth something is fenced and forbidden to walkaways. They are befriended by First Nation people (who have been left onto the very worst lands on the American continent); at one time a group is living on a nuclear accident site – an involuntary park – and they need to wear anti-rad gear whenever they go outside. Still, Doctorow takes the view that human labour + open tech can go a long way. Especially since this is a SF novel, and nothing is stopping the author from imagining super-advanced recycling, Von Neumann robots, and DIY biotech that can make food from basically nothing. The latter reminded me of @winnieponcelet and edible mushrooms that can grow just fine on wet cardboard!

As for your final consideration, @markomanka, I would say this: I do not see how walkaway must be all-or-nothing. You can turn your back on some aspects of default living, and yet maintain some economic communication with them. An example are the Amish: they grow their own food, they build their own houses, but they do not make their own diesel engines. There are Amish sawmills, but but no Amish steel mills. Some stuff from the non-Amish world goes into the Amish world, which means that some stuff comes back out, and the ledgers are balanced. And yet, a 90% Amish - 10% scale intensive materials production world would be very different from the world we live in now. Entire industries would become unviable. Partial exit can still be momentous.

At the end of the day, this is a SF novel, not a treatise. We should probably not ask too much of it. But it kind of puts to shame academic economists and sociologists that they cannot depict scenarios on this scale.


Very interesting. Thanks for the link to Walkaway I’m reading it now.

I’ve had periods where Exit seemed like a good idea. I wrote a blog that dealt with the idea of making a technology movement to help make exit more possible. I called it improving autonomy. Very much on the Promethean left side of things. I’m not pushing on it so much now at the moment, I think it could lead to too much destabilisation if not dealt with carefully. Useful in desperate times, so worth thinking about.

The technology for Exit will be developed, if slowly, because it is the same technology as for space colonisation.

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@eb4890, you are definitely doing economics in the Improving Autonomy website (disclaimer: I am an economist, or at least I was before I defrocked myself). You are even using, by name, some key concepts from modern (post-1950) economics, like principal-agent, free riding and commons. At the core of Edgeryders, @matthias is on a quest for autonomy; he is, I would say, very successful in improving specific bits (three key links on his profile), but he seems frustrated that, as you yourself point out in this post, any single object we touch seems to be the product of a mind-bogglingly complex web of industrial processes, customer-supplier relationships, IPRs and financial flows.

I do understand. Even you try to make stuff yourself, all the raw materials you need and all the tools you use to process them will have been come into existence by some mind-boggingly complex web as mentioned above. I watch his progress, and think that the quest for autonomy may be Promethean in intentions, but is incremental in practice. Little by little, Matt tries to reduce the contact surface between his life and the economy at large. Of course, this process gets faster as the group of people behind it increases, as described in Walkaway.

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I think we should attack the complexity from (at least) three directions.

  1. Simplify what you need to do.
  2. Increase the range of things you can do.
  3. Get more people thinking about how to do the above (the walkaway scenario).

It looks like @matthias is focusing on the first from some of his material I’ve read on EarthOS. Mine is on the second.

Pens and paper allow us to manage more complexity, computers even more (whilst adding a layer of complexity in itself). So what is the next step? I think computers can manage themselves (reducing their complexity overhead a bit, which is what my market based computing is about) and with a lot of AI we could get some pretty good intelligence augmentation of the kind described here. Advanced AI is a very fraught subject so I’m also thinking about how we might develop that sensibly too (and keeping an eye on other people doing the same).

I think I need to be enmeshed in the world for that though, which is also not my preference :slight_smile:

The third is tricky and definitely not my strong point. Our best bet is doing cool things and putting it out there (I should get back to work on the competitions).