Frank Knight's Case for Communism
By David Henderson
When I posted on Frank Knight’s case for Communism the other day, I also put it on up on Facebook and had some people wondering about context. Those of us who are fans of Frank Knight don’t think of him as a Communist. Milton Friedman and James Buchanan, to name two well-known economists, credit Knight for much of what they learned when they studied in the Ph.D. economics program at the University of Chicago: Friedman well before WWII and Buchanan after.
First, it probably goes without saying, but I should say it anyway. There is no way that Frank Knight believed in Communism. Second, the hard part, then, is to explain why he gave the talk he gave. My own view, having read about him over the years, is that he saw how idiotic the policy debate had become and had a moment, or maybe a few months or a few years, of despair. In researching this post, I came across a 2009 article by Harvard historian Angus Burgin. It’s titled “The Radical Conservatism of Frank H. Knight,” and is published in Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3, pp. 513-538.
Burgin, to his credit, takes Knight’s 1932 talk seriously. He doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Knight was really advocating Communism, but he dismisses, I think correctly, Rose Friedman’s view, expressed in Two Lucky People, that the lectures [there were apparently more than one] were “tongue-in-cheek.” Much of the lecture I quoted was tongue-in-cheek, but that term is too glib. I really do think, based on reading about the man, that he was in despair. Rose points out though, in her account of the episode, “When asked some years later for permission to publish the lectures [there were more than one], Knight is said to have responded, ‘I wish I could unpublish them.'”
I can’t do justice here to Burgin’s highly nuanced article. I recommend that you read it yourself and draw your own conclusions.
By the way, in rereading Rose Friedman’s reminiscences of Knight, I particularly liked these two:
A Catholic priest doing graduate work in economics registered for Knight’s course one quarter. His presence in clerical garb was doubtless an irritation to Knight. After two weeks or so in the course, the priest politely complained to the chairman of the department, “I registered for a course in the History of Economic Thought, not one in [sic] the misdeeds of the Catholic Church,” and asked for, and received, a refund of the fee he had paid for the course.
My favorite verb in that story is “received.”
And the other Rose Friedman comment I liked:
We have often remarked that two-thirds of his students never got anything from him, and the rest never got anything out of two-thirds of his remarks, but that the remaining one-third of one-third was well worth the price of admission. To this day we find ourselves often prefacing a comment, “as Frank Knight would say.”
Postscript: Within the next day or two, once I figure out how to post a picture that I can’t seem to rotate 90 degrees, I will tell a story about a former student that relates to Frank Knight. Teaser: the picture is of me wearing something that Frank Knight is wearing in the picture above.