Exit and Voice: Voting with our feet to raise our voices.

In Brief

Exit and Voice are the two ways we have of expressing our disagreement with an organization. Radical social entrepreneurs need to understand them to build good projects. Moreover, RSE’s are responsible for bringing about the next generation of social organizations. To make them humane, responsive, and innovative, we need to find ways to amplify Voice by simplifying Exit.

What is it?

All things change over time and change is a powerful tool for good. But deterioration – whether in social organizations like businesses, clubs, or nations – also occurs. People oppose deteriorating quality in products, groups, or governance using Exit and Voice.

Voice is typically associated with politics. An expression of Voice is a political protest, or the casting of a vote. Writing a letter to your Senator is also Voice. Asking a store for a refund, or complaining to the manager is too. Sometimes Voice is extremely effective, such as the mass acts of protest which led to greater racial or gender equality in America’s past. Other times, Voice seems completely ineffective, such as when petitions are ignored by elected officials.

Exit is typically associated with markets. Changing from one product to another is an expression of Exit – a person is ‘exiting’ the business they leave behind. A boycott is also Exit. In politics, emigrating from one society to another is Exit in action. The polity people leave behind is analogous to the firm whose products a person doesn’t purchase anymore.

Voice and Exit have different strengths, but they are not opposites. People use Voice to chastise organizations which may be too costly to Exit, or because they still believe the organization can be reformed from within. Some people feel loyalty to a brand or patriotism to a nation. These people are unlikely to Exit, but will go to great lengths to make their Voice heard.

For example, people write to CEOs to express their anger with a company often with the hope that they will be given a refund, or have their problem fixed. Instead of simply leaving (Exit), people opt for Voice.

But ultimately, the threats and disagreements of Voice can only restrain an abusive government or unresponsive business firm if people can act on their preference and leave them behind.

This is certainly not to suggest that Voice is unimportant. Rather, powerful Exit supports powerful Voice.

Walking out of a store while announcing that you and your friends will boycott their products is a more effective constraint on deteriorating service than a simple letter to the editor. Combining a neighborhood boycott (widespread Exit) with a letter to the editor is even more powerful. Notice though that the credible threat of Exit complements the expression of Voice.

The same can be said for politics. When recourse to Voice has failed, people can emigrate. Indeed, small polities like cities and towns often deliberately try to attract citizens and businesses leaving other areas. On the opposite end of the spectrum, totalitarian societies like North Korea completely restrict Exit – almost everyone is forbidden from leaving. Along with no-Exit, these citizens also have little or no Voice.

What do Exit and Voice mean for radical social entrepreneurs?

Building up Voice and Exit is the job of radical social entrepreneurs. Using social networking and modern technology, RSE’s can increase transparency and help people come together to better raise their Voice. Plenty of projects are currently underway working on supporting Voice in political units which already exist.

Even more fundamental to radical social entrepreneurship are the ways in which they can bolster Exit. Using legal entrepreneurship through projects like Free Cities and working within the Polycentric Law paradigm, RSE’s can build the responsive, innovative polities that harness Exit and Voice.

With many entrepreneurial communities competing with one another, people are able to easily Exit deteriorating organizations or those which simply no longer fit their ideals. These polities can also integrate new innovations which enhance Voice and build resilient communities. The costs of switching systems are lower, so Exit becomes easier.

With more powerful Exit, we sustain more powerful Voice.