Why libertarians should read Frank Knight


Mason Hunt, MPA

In an article, Ross Emmett, director of the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty and Professor of Political Economy in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership discusses the importance of reading Frank Knight's work.

At Chicago, of course, Knight is best known as one of the early founders of Chicago economics, a school that was especially important in the middle of the 20th century when Milton Friedman was joined by George Stigler, T. W. Schultz, Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, Al Harberger, Gary Becker, and other market-oriented economists.

But despite being Knight’s protégés, Chicago economists often ran afoul of their mentor’s view of the world. From the 1940s on, Knight’s attention turned from economic theory and market organization to thinking about markets in their broader institutional context. There were no sacred cows for Knight.

Throughout his life, Knight argued first and foremost that an understanding of basic market principles was essential to all social and political discourse.

He also made two other arguments over and over again. First, uncertainty is a feature of the world we live in, not a bug. But the fact that uncertainty plagues human existence does not mean that progress is impossible. It just means that there is no “one” answer. In the absence of certainty from either science or morality, Knight argued, secondly, that discussion was essential. A favorite line of his in the latter part of his career was picked up and carried forward by Buchanan: “Democracy is government by discussion.”