Economist Daniel Klein of George Mason University has been doing a lot of interesting work recently.
Klein is an Adam Smith scholar in his own right, but he has also been encouraging his students to work on Smith as well. He has recently supervised two PhD dissertations on Smith:
1. Brandon Lucas recently defended his dissertation entitled “The Influence of Adam Smith: The Invisible Hand, Hayekian Narrative, and Honest Profit.” Here is the abstract:
Adam Smith’s contributions to the world and to the field of economics cannot be overstated. College level economics students and even most lay people likely know Smith for his Invisible Hand metaphor, division of labor examples, or promotion of earning honest profit. Though such subjects are over 200 years old and often outwardly accepted as straightforward, debate remains active and divided regarding several of Smith’s ideas.The main chapters of my dissertation address three related, but separate, issues to further advance the broad frames of Smith scholarship. The first paper, “Seeking Honest Profit as Smithian Distributive Justice,” investigates whether seeking honest profit can be viewed as Smithian distributive justice. Before, and certainly since, the industrial revolution scores of writers and scholars have considered profit seeking to be an unbecoming trait. The paper uses Smith’s ideas about justice and honest profit to develop a framework showing how the search for honest profits can be seen as meeting the goals of distributive justice and establish a presumption of innocence rather than guilt.
The second paper, “Adam Smith’s Congruence with the Hayekian Narrative,” searches for congruence between Smith’s ideas and the epic socio-political story that Professor Daniel Klein dubs “The Hayekian narrative.” Several elements comprise the Hayekian narrative, with evolution and atavisms being prominent actors. The paper explains the narrative, discussing how humanity’s instincts, which are carried over from the primeval band, often conflict with the extended order, and how social-democratic worldviews may be interpreted as atavisms. The paper compares several of Smith and Hayek’s ideas to illustrate Smith’s similarities with the narrative.
The third paper, “In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: The Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes,” is co-authored with Dr. Daniel Klein. The paper evaluates Smith’s use of the Invisible Hand in his two major works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Although many scholars debate Smith’s attributed importance and purpose of the phrase, the paper shows physical centrality of word placement was well understood by Smith and that location of the Invisible Hand metaphor corresponds to such an understanding.
2. A second Klein student, Michael J. Clark, recently defended his dissertation entitled, “The Virtuous Discourse of Adam Smith: The Political Economist’s Measured Words on Public Policy.” Here is the abstract:
When Adam Smith advocated a specific approach for political discussion, he recommended and utilized strategic yielding and caution when necessary. The approach involves a willingness to mull through and respect the surrounding views and can lead one to moderation or fudging of extreme views or simple non-disclosure of extreme views. According to Smith, one needed to consider accommodating his more extreme views given the prejudice of the public. Beliefs and attitudes that would cause uproar or conflict were carefully treated and not brashly put forth. Prudence called for political figures or philosophers to obscure, hedge, conceal, or temper their radical beliefs. Smith related the approach to that of the Athenian official Solon who put forth laws that attempted to be “the best that the people can bear.” However, the cautious approach of Smith’s approach has gone overlooked in modern literature. Smith’s caution is being taken for mild to moderate interventionist support and thus many are claiming the father of economics has many ideas aligned with established modern policies of the welfare state and the regulatory state. While the works and ideas of Adam Smith remain foundational to modern economics the interpretation of Smith is changing. This dissertation examines Smith’s measured words and cautious approach to public policy and defends the interpretation of Adam Smith as a strong proponent of liberty.
But Klein has also been doing his own interesting work. For example, he recently published a provocative essay at Cato Unbound entitled “Against Overlordship.” Klein argues that the reigning background assumption in today’s America is that the government owns all property, and possibly indeed owns us as well, and that it provisionally grants rights to us to use our property and ourselves at its discretion and pleasure. Unsurprisingly, he argues that this is an unacceptable way to understand our relation to our government, and that it is an equally unacceptable way to understand government’s relation to property. What is perhaps more surprising is his claim that the position he opposes is in fact what most people in America have.
Cato Unbound has now also published three responses to Klein’s essay, by Matthias Matthijs, David Friedman, and Ilya Somin. All are worth reading—even Matthijs’s essay, which, unlike the other essays, is a model of bad argument.