Frank H. Knight (1885-1972): Economics

Classical economics has long been a hallmark of the University of Chicago. Frank Knight, who came to Chicago in 1929 from the University of Iowa, helped create this association by developing an economic philosophy that celebrated the opportunities available in a competitive, largely unregulated economy. While at Iowa, Knight had begun to extol the virtues of individual economic freedom, claiming that exchanges in the free marketplace were mutually advantageous.

Yet Knight's view of economics and society was hardly simple or singular. He believed in the market because its alternatives were worse. Knight perceived unanticipated dangers that would challenge every effort to manipulate the economy or engineer society. Though his aversion to planning became increasingly unfashionable, he maintained it throughout the New Deal years, arguing that there probably was "no answer to the business cycle: maybe we have to let it take its course." His conservatism rested on the belief that most people failed to appreciate life's complexity and uncertainty. He doubted the possibility of anyone's knowing "the true, the good, and the beautiful."

Knight's economic philosophy was deeply influenced also by his view of history and his recognition of social change. He understood that an individual's sense of need could be subjected to exploitation, and he acknowledged the growing impact of advertising as an important factor in economic change.

Knight's relationship with the University had its stormy moments, especially during the administration of Robert M. Hutchins. Knight attacked proposals made by President Hutchins which he feared might threaten faculty independence. Throughout all his public discussions with intellectuals of the day ran his suspicion of any philosophy that suggested control or limitations on personal freedom. Time and again, opponents of Knight felt the sting of his biting prose and his unswerving logic.

Later in his career, Knight developed his theories of freedom, democracy, religion, and ethics. He relished the chance to debate opponents. As a member of the Committee on Social Thought, Knight contributed significantly to the academic disputes that raged throughout much of his tenure at the University. His barely concealed disdain for persons whom he felt compromised their positions, or were unwilling (or unable) to bring clearly defined ideals and goals into the fray, was evident in his characteristically detailed letters. While Knight once wrote that the original sin was "the human propensity to be simpleminded," his actions suggest that an unwillingness to take a stand must have been a near second.

Personal morality in an impersonal society became an equally important issue for Knight. He was concerned about the standards used to guide societal behavior. Strongly anticlerical, he rejected religion for what he saw as its irrationality and uncritical thinking and for its restrictions on intellectual curiosity. Knight argued instead for an unfettered and uncompromising search for truth, a path he took throughout his career.

Photograph of  Frank Knight
Photograph of Frank Knight

Knight seemed to be writing constantly, producing a substantial body of articles and books on economics and dashing off lengthy letters to allies and antagonists.

Frank Knight to Robert M. Hutchins, January 2, 1949
Frank Knight to Robert M. Hutchins, January 2, 1949

Knight was among those on the faculty who sparred frequently with President Robert M. Hutchins. This letter, the first of an acerbic exchange on the subject of John Dewey, was typical of their correspondence.