Exit and Voice in Ancient Mesopotamia

Groningen, a.d. III Non. Dec. MMDCCLXXI A.U.C.,

In his 1970 book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Hirschman argues there are two ways in which we can influence the behaviour of those around us. Firstly, we can exit, that is, if we are dealing with another person or organisation, and we disapprove of that person’s or organisation’s behaviour, we can simply avoid them. For instance, if we dislike a product of a company or dislike how a company treats the environment we can stop buying their products. Similarly, we can leave a country if we disapprove of its political or economic situation. Our leaving may influence the company or country which we avoid in case they need us, for instance, if they need our consumption of their products or our resources, capital or labour. Secondly, we can use our voice. For instance, we complain, we support a political party or labour union, or threaten to use, or actually use, violence. If our voice is loud enough, we can change the quality of products that are sold or the policies pursued by the government.

I really liked the book, as it discusses the different scenarios in which exit and voice can be effective tools to change the behaviour of others. What I also liked about the book is how it states something so simple and seemingly obvious, yet nobody else had said it before. The book captures some essential elements of human behaviour, two elements which the disciplines of economics and political science are built on.

How essential exit and voice are to human behaviour is exemplified by a customer complaint dating from 1750BC. Found on a stone tablet engraved with cuneiform, a person named Nanni complains to another person named Ea-nasir: 

The tablet with the complaint, The British Museum

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!” […]

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! […]

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

Right there it is, exit and voice in ancient Mesopotamia, 3750 years old! Nanni uses his voice option, by sending a very angry letter to Ea-nasir. Imagine how angry you must be to engrave your writing in clay, than bake it, and then have it sent to Walmart of Albert Heijn! At the end, Nanni also threatens to use his other option, namely exit. If Ea-nasir does not clean up his act, Nanni will simply reject the copper ingots supplied to him.

It also suggests that Nanni was aware that he could not actually use his exit option to the fullest. After all, he threatens to reject the ingots, rather than to find another supplier. That Nanni instead uses his voice option is very much in line with Hirschman’s prediction: if you cannot leave, you can only complain to change the world.

Bottom line: Exit and voice are literally at least as old as human history, and perhaps even older. Yet, it took us until 1970 to write the first book about it.

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