Making the Best Decision

by Nancy Y. Bekavac

Mark Felt’s disclosure that he was the Deep Throat of the Watergate scandal has reawakened old arguments and old warhorses. Pat Buchanan grumbles “Shame!” and Chuck Colson wonders why Felt didn’t tell his boss, Patrick Gray, and then go to confront Nixon. Richard Ben Veniste praises Felt’s sense of loyalty to the mission of the FBI.

But is there something here for the rest of us to learn? I think there is—along with some guidance from another nonagenarian, the developmental economist and German émigré Albert O. Hirschman.

First published in 1970, Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States has never been out of print. It recounts the three basic strategies available to individuals faced with institutional declines (Hirschman’s term)—in business, volunteer organizations, churches, and civic institutions. They may leave as members or customers (“exit”), complain or agitate for change (“voice”), or decide to remain (“loyalty”) where exit or voice may exact a price too high.The insights were developed from a huge variety of examples—from postcolonial railroads in Nigeria to the black power movement to the AFL-CIO merger of 1955. From such seemingly disparate data, Hirschman fashions a powerful set of insights into the possibilities of individual action in the light of dysfunction or misbehavior.

In the early 1970s, Felt faced a dilemma: as second in command of the FBI, he saw FBI files documenting what the White House and its operatives were doing in using covert operations to undermine democratic processes, and he had to decide whether to do anything at all, and if so, what.

Felt could have exited—resigned from the FBI, held a press conference, gone to the press, or written a book. But Felt didn’t resign. Perhaps he stayed because he was afraid to lose his position, or afraid that without him things might get worse.We don’t know.What we do know is that he chose a version of “voice:” he leaked information to young reporters in a position to combine that information with other facts to unravel a White House scandal, amplifying Felt’s “voice” with the power of The Washington Post. Much of the criticism, then and now, of Felt’s role centers on his having kept his anonymity: by not owning up to who he was and how he knew what he knew, Felt needed the credibility of Woodward and Bernstein to make his revelations important. But anonymity carries a cost: lack of belief, suspicion of those in power and of reporters, and continuing betrayal of those who entrusted secrets to you.

What Felt did or didn’t do is instructive even for those who aren’t high officials. Each of us is engaged in overlapping relationships to large, at times dysfunctional, institutions: big corporate employers or suppliers, churches, school systems, volunteer organizations. When they fail to meet our expectations, we weigh our responses. It may be fairly simple: after finding our frequent flyer miles permit limited upgrades and free flights only to Alaska in February, we “exit” that program and switch to another carrier.

Or it may be more complex. Consider my friend, the dean of a graduate school of education. He told me he was profoundly at odds with his university’s budget cutting and unwilling to dismantle the programs he had put in place. I urged him to read Hirschman, and he did. His conclusion was a complex marriage of all three strategies: he resigned as dean, with a letter detailing his disagreements and suggestions, but he stayed on as a professor because he was unwilling to abandon his colleagues. So he “exited” his administrative post,”voiced” his position, and he still remained “loyal” to his school by returning to his teaching position.

During Watergate, Felt chose a continuing role as a secret informer.Whether that strategy for “voice” remains open for others depends on many factors, including reporters willing to protect confidential sources and media willing to publish.The furor over Felt’s disclosure and over Newsweek’s retraction of an anonymously sourced story on prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, do not give much comfort to anonymous whistle-blowers. But there are other effective ways to respond. As a victim of the most spectacular failure of social organization in the 20th century, the rise of the Third Reich, Hirschman brings an informed heart and vast experience to those faced with non-responsive institutions.