Hirschman and Social Movements: The Case of Black Lives Matter

The esteemed Civil Rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[1] As inspiring an observation as this statement is, it suffers from an outstanding problem. Institutional and organizational practices and standards do not automatically adjust themselves. Nor do they necessarily change in a manner, adjudged by all those who live with them, congruent with justice. In any event, justice is a much splendored, yet highly contested, ethical criterion. Whichever way one might interpret justice, or matters related to equality, liberty, and so forth, the question is: how might we respond to actions or conditions failing to correspond with some desired quality?

Albert O. Hirschman attempted to address this question in his Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which is the subject of Adam Thierer’s lead essay. As Hirschman’s book title suggests, individuals can respond to perceived underperformances by corporations, government agencies, or some other provider in different ways. Should alternatives be available at reasonable cost, people could abstain or withdraw (i.e. exit) from their current provider. Individuals may, instead, express displeasure to their provider in a verbal manner or, say, through protest (i.e. voice). The prevalence and intensity of exit and voice responses are influenced by senses of loyalty toward those providing the private or public goods, or governance solutions.

Hirschman’s ideas have been refined, including by Hirschman himself,[2] as researchers better understand the complicated tradeoffs between exit, voice, and loyalty.[3] The effectiveness of responses to underperformance are also shaped by institutions, norms, organizations, and technologies. Thierer’s latest book on “evasive entrepreneurship” situates Hirschman’s conceptual system in a world rapidly adopting digital technologies, such as personal computers, smartphones, and the Internet. According to Thierer, technological innovations provide an opportunity to exit coercive and inefficient over-government.

I wish to add that digital technologies catalyze the creation and amplification of contentious voices. People can use digital platform applications, such as social media, to share grievances about institutional-organizational performances online. The same technologies are used by social movements and related collective technologies, and individuals, to organize mass protests and acts of civil disobedience. Technological innovation provides avenues to realize new liberties of association, seen as a “specifically American remedy for the failure of institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertain nature of the future.”[4] Digital technologies may also help to reduce the costs of collective action along various margins.

Let us focus on one of the momentous social movement episodes of our time: Black Lives Matter (BLM). Whereas the BLM movement is a somewhat loose structure of activists campaigning on a range of racial justice issues, arguably its key issue is preventing violence by police and other law enforcement officers against people of color. Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner by police officers, protesters have conducted street demonstrations, protest rallies, and political campaigns since 2013. BLM protests have escalated this year following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks.

BLM is often described as an ongoing act of civil disobedience; this is an important subject both to Hirschman and to Thierer in his revisionist account of exit and voice. What is significant is the degree of online engagement by BLM organizers, activists, and supporters. Social media hashtags (such as #blacklivesmatter or #BLM) are diffused to generate public attention to new instances of police brutality, and to publicize protest events.[5] BLM participants have spread online footage of policing abuses.[6] BLM activists and supporters use other online tools to share intelligence and organizational strategies.[7] BLM use digital technologies both as a crowdsourced “disobedient gaze” upon abusive authorities, and to organize contentious tactics.

It is true that some doubt the efficacy of online collective action,[8] but the success of digitally enabled movement activities should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Sociopolitical change cannot be attributed to one individual or group, or cause, but it does appear BLM has helped advance a fruitful policing reform agenda. The need to demilitarize American policing seems to have gained a renewed focus.[9] There also appears to be heightened public awareness about the unjust, discriminatory bases of law enforcement.[10]

By no means can BLM activists be said to be evading the burden of confronting policymakers and members of the public alike over a desire for change. In protesting against police brutality and discrimination against people of color, BLM challenges the purveyors of cultural-social influence and political power to avoid evading the responsibilities of living up to the lofty standards of liberty itself. Central to this is treating everyone fairly and reasonably in matters of law enforcement—specifically, the non-aggressive stance of not hurting, and most certainly, not killing, people who encounter police. A traffic stop, police questioning over a suspected wrongdoing, or an arrest should not represent an opportunity to brutalize or, worst of all, serve as a death sentence.

We do not rule out that some BLM participants maintain certain ideological or philosophical commitments of non-liberal character. Key organizers, activists, and supporters in the movement may even harbor antagonistic “framework disagreements” against liberalism as a set of organizing sociopolitical principles. To the extent that BLM activities are consistent with liberal ends to prevent abuses of the state, participants might be functionally depicted as being robust loyalists to a liberty-consistent idea. It is also worthy to mention that those involved in BLM protests and related activities are exercising their rights of association, expression, and speech, representing domains of activity consistent with extensive liberal interpretations of democratic interaction.[11]

It has been suggested in some quarters that we presently live in a “golden age” of social movement activity.[12] Whatever our attitudes toward such a suggestion, there seems little doubt that Albert Hirschman’s exit-voice-loyalty model serves as a useful framework through which to analyze social movements. Adam Thierer’s contribution to “Hirschman Studies” enables us to more deeply investigate who is evading whom, and where loyalties lie, in the meaningful pursuit of equality, justice, and liberty in our fractious times.


[1] King, M. L., Jr., ““Where Do We Go From Here?,” Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention.” [https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go…]

[2] For example, Hirschman, A. O. (1980), “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Further Reflections and a Survey of Recent Contributions,” Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly/Health and Society 58(3): 430-453.

[3] Useful surveys are provided by Dowding, K., John, P., Mergoupis, T. and Van Vugt, M. (2000), “Exit, voice and loyalty: Analytic and empirical developments,” European Journal of Political Research 37: 469-495; and John, P. and Dowding, K. (2016), “Spanning Exit and Voice: Albert Hirschman’s Contribution to Political Science,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 34(B): 175-196.

[4] Thierer, A. (2020), Evasive Entrepreneurs and The Future of Governance. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, p. 116.

[5] Ince, J., Rojas, F. and Davis, C. A. (2017), “The social media response to Black Lives Matter: how Twitter users interact with Black Lives Matter through hashtag use,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 40(11): 1814-1830.

[6] Kumanyika, C. (2017), “Livestreaming in the Black Lives Matter Network,” in DIY Utopia: Cultural Imagination and the Remaking of the Possible, ed. A. Day. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 169-188.

[7] Politi, D. (2020), “Activists Create Public Online Spreadsheet of Police Violence Videos.” [https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/06/george-floyd-public-spreads…]

[8] Gurri, Martin (2018), The Revolt of the Public and The Crisis of Authority in The New Millennium. San Francisco, CA: Stripe Press; Tufecki, Z. (2017), Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[9] Balko, R. (2013), Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York, NY: Public Affairs; Coyne, C. J. and Hall, A. R. (2018), Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

[10] Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M. and Anderson, M. (2020), Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Pew Research Center, June 12. [https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-acr…]

[11] Lavoie, D. (1993), Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society. Social Philosophy and Policy 10 (2): 103-120; Goodman, Nathan P. (2019), “Don Lavoie’s Dialectical Liberalism,” In The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Conext of Human Freedom, eds. R. E. Bissell, C. M. Sciabarra and E. W. Younkins. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 133-148.

[12] Brannen, S. J., Haig, C. S. and Schmidt, K. (2020), The Age of Mass Protests: Understanding an Escalating Global Trend. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies. [https://www.csis.org/analysis/age-mass-protests-understanding-escalatin…]


Mikayla Novak is a doctoral candidate in the School of Sociology at The Australian National University. Her current research interests include classical sociology, digital sociology, economic and fiscal sociology, social movement studies, social network analysis, and social philosophy. With an academic and professional background in economics, her publications have appeared in outlets such as Research Policy, Constitutional Political Economy, Review of Austrian Economics, Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, Cosmos+Taxis, and The Cato Journal. Mikayla Novak is the author of Inequality: An Entangled Political Economy Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) and is presently writing a book intersecting classical liberal political economy and social movement studies. She has previously contributed to libertarianism.org.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Adam Thierer argues that innovation can help dissatisfied customers—or citizens—in two ways. First, it offers an “exit” from unsatisfactory services in either the private or public sector. And second, this strengthened form of “exit” lends its power to individuals’ “voice” as well; when disgruntled consumers can easily leave, their threats to do so mean a lot more.

Response Essays

  • Mikayla Novak uses Albert O. Hirschman’s concepts of exit, voice, and loyalty to analyze Black Lives Matter as a social movement. She finds it a productive tool for thinking about current events and argues that Hirschman’s book holds up well even in an era of digital discontent, one quite different from the book’s own time.

  • Ilya Somin acknowledges that the digital ability to “exit” a bad governance or consumer situation is good as far as it goes, but that for some cases, it’s never going to be enough. A political or religious refugee commonly gains safety only through physically fleeing their oppressors, who control the government where they live. And even those who leave an area merely for better economic opportunities elsewhere exercise a kind of exit that can’t generally be replicated through digital substitutes.

  • Max Borders laments that liberalism is in retreat as nationalists and socialists have come to dominate American political discourse. Radical remedies are called for, and so Borders takes issue with Thierer’s concept of permissionless innovation. The point, he says, is not to make leaders more accountable; it is to make top-down leadership obsolete as a form of social organization. When that happens, the ideologies that rely on it will wither.