Ross Emmett

Archive for the ‘Frank Knight’ Category

Frank Knight: “Can the Mind Solve the Problems Raised by Its Liberation?”

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Talk prepared for session on Frank Knight’s Economic and Social Philosophy at the Southern Economic Association meetings in Washington, DC, November 2011. I was not able to attend, so recorded my comments.

Can the Mind Solve the Problems Raised by Its Liberation?

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Sources identified in the talk:

Buchanan, J. M. (1979), “Natural and Artefactual Man,” in What Should Economists Do? Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.
Knight, F. H. (1921), Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Knight, F. H. (1922), “Ethics and the Economic Interpretation,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 36, May, pp. 454-81.
Knight, F. H. (1923), “The Ethics of Competition,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 37, August, pp. 579-624.
Knight, F. H. (1960), Intelligence and Democratic Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Sen, A. (2009), The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

The text of my talk:

Can the Mind Solve the Problems Raised by Its Liberation?

Frank Knight concluded his Intelligence and Democratic Action with the following words:

I have been raising questions to which I, at least, do not see the answers—questions which, … frankly seem to justify doubts about the future of free society. If it is to survive society itself must manage somehow to work a very considerable change in human nature as it has come down into this liberal epoch. …
The question [is] whether human nature has what it takes to solve the problems which have been raised by its liberation.

Over the last twenty years of his life, Frank Knight devoted his attention to the manuscript of a book which remained incomplete at his death on the future of liberal society. Central to that book was a theme we can call “the quest for rational norms.” For Knight, the central problem facing liberalism was not “markets or state?” or even “what’s the best constitutional arrangement?” Instead, he believed that liberal society needed to establish a set of rational norms that would both constrain and guide the freedom liberalism had provided us.

In the manuscripts he wrote during those twenty years, he began to organize his response to the question about rational norms in three parts. First, what norms exist for thinking about economic policy in a free society? Secondly, what norms should guide politics in a free society? And finally, what ethical norms are required for a free society?

As I said, Knight’s book remained unfinished at his death, but we can summarize his thinking on each of these areas from the drafts that were written, from the book Intelligence and Democratic Action, and his other publications.

In economics, the quest for rational norms was reasonably clear to Knight. Throughout his entire career, going back to a point shortly after he completed Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, Knight argued that economics could not be a predictive science. Hence, economics was not directly a guide to policy. Instead, he argued in different ways, that what economics did was provide a set of principles that guide our thinking about economic policy in a free society. A central concern of his was the problem of value. Knight’s solution to the problem of value lay in the alternative cost tradition, today identified most often as the opportunity cost tradition.

We could explore Knight’s economics principles further, but that would only take us further into things that you as economists could as easily spell out as I can, so I’m going to move on to politics.

In the quest for rational norms in politics, Knight has a more complex approach, because he is torn between two issues. Liberalism, as a tradition, affirms the importance of inherited traditions in shaping individual rationality. If we will, we could follow Adam Smith and say that our moral sentiments are shaped by the range of experiences our culture provides us. For Knight, an important component of this, which is seldom observed, is his early friendship with Edward Sapir, whose Sapir-Whorff hypothesis regarding language and culture, suggests that language shapes the way that we can conceptualize the world around us. Thus, for Knight, our rationality is socially embedded. I might point out here that in his debates over rationality and culture with Robert Hutchins, Robert Redfield, and John Nef—debates that provided the impetus for the creation of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought—Knight sided with Redfield in rejecting the notion of a universal or natural moral rationality.

And yet at the same time, Knight believed, unlike some of his colleagues in the early postwar liberal movements, that liberalism was a revolutionary movement that had emerged by overthrowing the cultural authority of past traditions, esp. those traditions emerging from religion and absolutism. Hence, for Knight, there was a two-fold set of rational norms. On the one hand, we are rule-followers; on the other, we are rule-breakers. Thinking constitutionally, for Knight, was the way that humans should break law: that is, Knight argued, that where there were problems in our political order, what was needed was rational discussion of how to break, and re-make, the law.

As is typical in his work, Knight does not provide us with much more guidance than these comments suggest. Still, I find it interesting that the people that perhaps represent most closely what Knight might propose were he to spell out more fully the political norms that he would urge us to follow, are those who are often seen as antithetical to the tradition of liberalism in which we often place Knight. I’m thinking here in particular of John Rawls and Amartya Sen. I mention these two because John Rawls was reading Knight’s “Ethics of Competition” as he was working out his theory of Justice as Fairness in the 1960s. There are many similarities, once one recognizes Knight’s rationalistic side, between Rawls’ goals and Knight’s goals. And Amartya Sen, like Knight, is very concerned about those who, while free, do not have the capacity to participate effectively in a free society. Indeed, Knight spoke sometimes of the need for “effective freedom”; not just the absence of coercion, but the means and capacity for participation that improves the quality of one’s life.

Finally, ethics. As you know, Knight was concerned about ethics for the entirety of his life. From at least the 1922-23 essays “Ethics and the Economic Interpretation” and “The Ethics of Competition,” he returns over and over again to the question of what ethical norms can guide our action, both individually and as a society. There are two key signposts that we might point to that suggest what Knight might tell us about ethics in a liberal society. The first of those has been nicely captured by Jim Buchanan in the expression that concludes his essay “Natural and Artefactual Man”: what the free person wants is the freedom to become the person he wants to be. This is a theme that resonates throughout Knight’s work: that what freedom means ethically is the freedom to become someone that you currently are not, and that becoming is what people want more than satisfying existing wants. Hence his attack on utilitarianism; hence his attack on moralism and scientism as the substitution of an external authority for the personal quest to define the norms that will shape the quality of one’s life. In part, Knight’s comments on the quest for political norms for social action are an extension of this: society is also in the process of becoming, and freedom is valuable because it enables us both personally and collectively to become what we want to be.

The other theme is also a Buchanan theme: that is, the necessity of relatively absolute absolutes. Ethics, for Knight, does not exist in a cultural vacuum any more than economics and politics do. Cultural history matters for Knight; the values that we have are those which we have inherited from the past, and as we go forward, we do not completely remake them at one time. There are always some things we hold constant while we consider whether to change something else. Thus, for the moment, there are some values we hold as “absolute,” but always with the caveat that we remain free later to put them up for criticism: they are relatively absolute absolutes.

Hence, once again, Knight does not provide us with rational norms for ethical action. If anything, his ethical principle is the one he mentioned in his AEA presidential address: have lots of principles and make a judgment as to which are relevant to any specific decision.

The same holds true for his ethical standard for a liberal society. Does the society force one to accept norms which are not considered ultimately changeable? Does society enforce norms that prevent you, in some fashion, from becoming the person which you could become?

You may notice that in each of Knight’s three areas of concern, he provides little that suggests free society will succeed. Nor do his concerns fit together into a nice neat system of thought which one can apply to the social and economic problems of the day. Knight was always better at upsetting the course of normal economic and philosophical discussion by unveiling the constraints of its underlying assumptions than he was at system-building. But perhaps even today, reminders of our need for humility in the face of the dynamic complexity and novelty of human experience can prompt us to remember what we wish to become, and the need for critical judgment. That is what reading Knight today reminds us of.

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