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(1885-1972)
Frank H. Knight
 
: American Journal of Economics & Sociology, Jul97, Vol. 56 Issue 3, p319, 12p
Kern, William S.
THE HETERODOX ECONOMICS OF "THE MOST ORTHODOX OF ORTHODOX ECONOMISTS": FRANK H. KNIGHT
ABSTRACT. The prevailing view of Frank Knight is that he was a defender of neoclassical economics and the free market system. While this view has validity, it tends to obscure the presence of significant heterodox elements in his thought. Knight was, in fact, one of the most perceptive critics of economic orthodoxy and the market system. The question thus arises as to how Knight could combine advocacy and criticism of the market system. Knight reconciled the two by separating questions of policy from the evaluation of ideals. Thus while his criticism of the market system proceeded on the basis of regarding it as ideal, in contrast his judgments on policy were based upon comparisons of the available alternatives. Knight found the alternatives to the imperfect market order even less appealing.
I. Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy
JOSEPH DORFMAN in his The Economic Mind in American Civilization, referred to Frank Knight as a "militant expositor of neoclassicism" and listed him, along with Jacob Viner, as "among the most sophisticated and able defenders of the neoclassical system" (1959, 467). In their book, The Academic Scribblers, William Breit and Roger Ransom describe Knight as the "Philosopher of the Counterrevolution in Economics" and said that those who followed his way of thinking became progenitors of the "new neoclassicism." They asserted (1982, 199) that a primary element upon which the "new neoclassicism" was erected was Knight's rehabilitation of "economic man." Paul Samuelson referred to his former teacher and "boyhood idol" as "Abraham" in his role as the founder of the Chicago School (1972, 55).
From these characterizations of Knight, there emerges a picture of him as being amongst "the most orthodox of orthodox economists" (Witte, 1954, 133). Certainly a strong case can be made for such a view given the conservative nature of many of Knight's conclusions on matters of social policy as well as the nature of much of his theoretical work in economics (Kern 1987, Kasper 1993). While the weight of opinion on Knight's work properly places him in the orthodox camp, the presence of significant heterodox elements in his thought should be noted.
This paper explores the often neglected, heterodox elements in Knight's work.) In particular, it examines his views on issues such as the rationality of economic agents, the role of factors such as luck and inheritance in income distribution, the ethics of capitalism, monopoly and business cycles, and his belief in a cumulative growth in inequality. The question thus arises as to how Knight could simultaneously be a critic and advocate of the market order.
II. Rational and Irrational Economic Man
DEFINING THE ESSENTIAL TENETS of orthodoxy is likely to result in a list of principles with which some will agree and others will take issue. However, one of the broadly accepted principles would be the assumption of the rationality of economic agents. Indeed, for a number of economists, the notion of rational maximizing behavior is taken to be synonymous with economic behavior (Becker 1976, Hirshleifer 1984). When some economists' studies do not embrace the rationality assumption, they are seen as placing the analyses outside the boundaries of the economics discipline (Landsberg 1989, 596).
Though Knight shared the view that economic behavior was identical with rational behavior (1956, 127), and in spite of the fact that Knight made extensive use of the concept of "economic man" himself, he nonetheless indicated a rather significant role for "irrational" factors in the determination of human behavior. With regard to the fundamental question of whether human behavior could be best understood scientifically, meaning as rational adaptation of means to ends, he was of the opinion that "it is only to a limited extent that our behavior, even our economic behavior, is of this character. Much of it is more or less impulsive or capricious" (Knight 1964, 52).
Knight asserts that in order to develop a science of economics, it was necessary to adopt the assumption of rational behavior. Thus he argues that "economic man" is indispensable to developing a science of conduct in order to structure our thinking about economic activity:
The `economic man,' ... underlies all economic speculation. The economic man is the individual who obeys economic laws, which is merely to say that he obeys some laws of conduct, it being the task of the science to kind out what the laws are. He is the rational man, the man who knows what he wants and orders his conduct intelligently with a view to getting it. In no other sense can there be laws of conduct or a science of conduct; the only possible science of conduct is that which treats the behavior of the economic man, i.e., economics in the very broad sense in which we have used the term. (1976, 35).
Knight therefore insisted that economics must be based upon the examination of the choices of rational maximizers and, that in doing so, it was able to forge an "exact" science, "which reaches laws as universal as those of mathematics and mechanics" (1976, 135). Knight's criticism was not, therefore, that the development of economics was misguided or impossible but rather that there were significant limitations to the applicability or usefulness of the economic view of conduct.
His views on the limitations of the "economic point of view" puts him at odds with the recent developments in economics, known as economic imperialism, pioneered by his Chicago School descendants such as Gary Becker who have sought to extend the domain of economic analysis beyond the realm of market relations. Economic imperialists, such as Becker and Gordon Tullock, see all forms of social interaction as a result of the economizing behavior stemming from the existence of scarcity. Scarcity is a ubiquitous condition of life compelling choice, hence all behavior has an economic aspect. Some economists have taken the imperialist element to the limit in arguing that economics is the only true and necessary social science.
Knight frequently stressed the limitations of the economic approach and argued against such extensions of the economic approach long before the work of Becker et al. In "The Limitations of Scientific Method in Economics" Knight asserted that:
From a rational or scientific point of view, all practically real problems are problems in economics. The problem of life is to utilize resources `economically,' to them go as far as possible in the production of desired results. The general theory of economics is therefore simply the rationale of life- insofar as it has any rationale! The first question in regard to scientific economics is the question of how far life is rational, how far its problems reduce to the form of using means to achieve given ends. Now this, we shall contend, is not very far; the scientific view of life is a limited and partial view .... This fact sets a first and most sweeping limitation to the conception of economics as a science (1935, 105).
Why did Knight take this point of view? The most general answer is that Knight felt that the economic view of conduct was too unrealistic (1935, 35). Earlier we pointed out that Knight believed a "scientific" economics was possible. However, in order to create such an entity, it was necessary to impose certain assumptions. In particular it was necessary to assume given wants, resources, and technology. "For if it is the intrinsic nature of a thing to grow and change it cannot be treated as a scientific datum" (1935, 21). In addition it must be assumed that individual economic agents seek to maximize the satisfaction of these given wants (1956, 25). Any behavior directed at ends other than the satisfaction of these given wants. is thus irrational in nature and is therefore outside the boundaries of economics (1956, 92). Knight took issue both with the assumption that certain things were given i.e. wants, as well as the motivational assumption of maximization.
Though economics assumes that economic agents strive to maximize the satisfaction of a given set of wants, Knight argued that, in reality, this was far from the actual case. Wants are seldom, in Knight's view, "final" in any important sense. They are constantly refined or changed in the process of their realization (1956, 172). Hence "wants" fail to be sufficiently stable to legitimately be labeled data (1935, 22).
One of Knight's most cited examples of the provisional nature of wants is the process of play. As he points out, the goals of play are not so much the prizes in the game but are rather designed to make the activity of playing the game interesting. What is really desired is the pleasure derived from participation in a "good game" rather than the gaining of the prizes themselves which are largely symbolic of success. This, of course, inverts the usual means/end relationship posited by economics.
Much more important than the satisfaction of wants, Knight argues, is the desire to have the right wants which brings into question the issue of motivation. If life is nothing more than the satisfaction of desires then, indeed, all of life is nothing more than economics (1935, 21). A much more important motivation than the desire for satisfaction Knight took to be the desire to do the right thing and to be the right sort of person (1956, 172). Thus the end of action Knight took to be the elevation and cultivation of better wants rather than their satisfaction (1935, 22). But, of course, the definition of the right thing and the right kind of person are the results of a social process - "... we want things, mainly to be like others or to be different from them, to emulate or dominate, be agreeable or arouse envy, and so on" (1935, 103). In contrast purely rational action requires the complete absence of personal relations, in effect requiring persons to treat each ocher as vending machines (1960, 73).
As a result of the above, Knight concluded chat economic theory was of limited usefulness in explaining human behavior. The "careful" economist must take pains not to confuse the behavior of perfectly rational persons with that of actual persons, for in a great many instances, the latter will deviate from :the former in considerable degree, though not so much as to render economics useless. Rather, the economist must take account of the influence of the role of irrational factors by complementing economic theory with information and insights derived from statistical investigation, historical research as well as the ocher social sciences (1956, 26).
III. Knight's Rejection of Welfare Economics
BECAUSE KNIGHT REJECTED THE VIEW that life was fundamentally about the satisfaction of wants, he also rejected the sort of welfare economics based upon that same premise. Welfare economics, in its Paretian and ocher forms, is inherently utilitarian in nature in describing a maximum of social welfare in terms of some maximum of utility achieved through the satisfaction of the given wants of the members of the community. Knight admitted in "Ethics and the Economic Interpretation" that if life is, in fact, nothing more than the process of want satisfaction, then ethics or normative analysis is reducible to a sort of "glorified economics." If there is nothing more to life than satisfying wants, then what one ought to do is to satisfy one's wants. Therefore economics as the science of want satisfaction is both science and ethical theory. The latter is reducible to the former (1935, 20).
But because Knight did not view life in this way, but rather argued that what one wants is not to have one's wants satisfied but to have more and better wants, he therefore found the traditional criteria of neoclassical welfare economics of little value (1956, 269).
If Knight rejected mainstream welfare economics what did he propose in its stead? Consistent with his view of the life process he concluded that judgement of economic policy, and particularly of any system of social organization, must instead "be judged ethically rather by the wants which it generates, the type of character which it forms in its people, than by its efficiency in satisfying wants as they exist at any given time" (1935, 51). Thus consideration of the ethical significance of the results of the free enterprise system was a familiar theme of his work.
IV. Market Failures
IN KNIGHT'S OPINION the ethical notions asserted in defending the free enterprise system are derived from individualism and particularly the claims made for its efficiency and contribution to individual liberty under the assumption of perfect competition. But Knight, as the first to codify the. conditions of perfect competition, was quick to point out that reality deviated significantly from the conditions assumed in a perfect market. Perfect competition assumes freely contracting rational individuals, the absence of any market power, mobility of resources, and complete information. But actual conditions are significantly different. He thus produced a considerable list of market failures.
Beyond his views on the rationality of economic agents already discussed, he added concerns about inequalities in bargaining power, resource immobility, incomplete information, monopoly, externalities, uncertainty as well as myopia about the future, and inequality in the distribution of income (1935, 49-54).
In Knight's opinion, the fact that society is not made up of responsible individuals endowed with given wants and the necessary productive capacity as assumed, is the most serious flaw in the theory of individualism (1956, 271). Individuals are members of families, rather than purely individuals and they come into the world "neither free nor fit for freedom." Some family members are not free contractors at all. They have decisions made for them as in the case of children. The effects of inheritance and educational decisions significantly impact individuals' economic opportunities "giving rise to a cumulative growth of inequality" both in terms of income and power (1935, 291). Thus Knight believed that the tendency was away from, rather than toward, the social ideal of equal opportunity (1935, 50), as well as equality of results. In modern terms, poverty replicates poverty and wealth, wealth
Contrary to the theory's assumption of an absence of market power, owing to incomplete development of markets and costliness of acquiring information, a certain amount of bargaining power is inevitable, particularly in the markets for labor and land. Furthermore, "the workings of competition educate men progressively for monopoly" in that they quickly discover that monopoly is more rewarding than competition. The result is that "free competition naturally tends to become a contest in the establishment of monopoly" (1935, 291). Social action was therefore deemed necessary to offset this ineluctable tendency toward monopoly (1935, 52).
But the growth of large production units has implications beyond its effects on competition. The greater efficiency of these large production units results from significant concentrations of authority and the use of mass production techniques. The result is a significant restriction of the range of economic freedom afforded the masses. That freedom is largely constrained to the choice of one's boss. Once inside the firm one finds a military-like hierarchy of control (1956, 279).
Another assumption of individualism is that its various benefits and costs are borne entirely and voluntarily by freely contracting individuals. But in some instances, such as with "public goods" and negative externalities, this assumption is violated. Third parties variously bear costs or receive benefits without consent or payment in violation of the assumption of voluntary agreement. For Knight, such instances were more than occasional aberrations of the system. As he proclaimed: "In a developed social order hardly any `free exchange' between individuals is devoid of good or bad results for outsiders" (1935, 53).
The success of the system as a want satisfying entity is also dependent upon its performance in terms of macroeconomics. In this regard Knight asserted a belief in the inherent tendency toward business cycles. The system "collapses at frequent intervals through dilution of its value unit and through other causes which produce violent oscillations instead of the equilibrium of theory" (1935, 58).
V. Knight on Productivity Ethics
KNIGHT also noted that the question of the system's success in satisfying wants involves consideration of whose wants are to be satisfied. The free market system has also been defended on the basis of the "productivity ethic" in that it tends to distribute the fruits of economic activity on the basis of the productive contribution of its members. But Knight noted this is only a tendency. Perfect imputation would require perfect information. Furthermore, he argued that the forces that allocate workers to their most productive employment were even weaker than the tendency to reward them in accordance with actual productivity. But even if the market did always assign shares in accordance with productivity, there is still the question of whether this is the appropriate ethical standard.
Knight raised several objections to the productivity ethic as an ethical theory. The productivity of a person is measured in value terms which is a function of both the demand and supply of that factor. On the demand side, the goods produced are a response to the wants created by the system. It is possible that the wants satisfied by that productivity may not be of an ethical character. Pornographers may produce a more highly valued product than poets and thus earn higher incomes.
One's actual productivity is also a function of one's productive capacities. The sources of these capacities were, in Knight's opinion, a mixture of inheritance, luck, and effort in that order of relative importance. Of the three Knight felt that only effort had any ethical validity (1935, 56). The demand for a factor influences its value, as noted above, but unless the capacity to provide that input resulted from some effort on the part of the individual Knight felt it was hardly the basis of any ethical claim to a larger share of income than of those persons providing inputs of lesser demand.
The value of any input also depends on the relative scarcity or supply of that factor. Knight did not see why the mere fact of difference from others in possessing this factor should generate an ethical claim to higher incomes, unless it was linked to effort on the part of the possessor; particularly effort which others would not undertake. Such capacities, when inherited, Knight felt, rather "represents an obligation to the world rather than a claim upon it" (1935, 56).
All of these criticisms represent sources of departure of the system from efficiency. But as we have seen, Knight did not accept want satisfaction as the ultimate criteria for evaluation of an economic system although he did criticize its failures or shortcomings on those grounds. But much more important to Knight was the application of the previously mentioned criteria--the sort of wants that it generates, and the sort of individuals that it produced.
VI. The Market Order As a Source of Wants
KNIGHT in contending that the market system was both a generator of wants as well as a means of satisfying them (1935, 51), raised the question "... what sort of wants did the market system tend to produce?" In particular does it inculcate the "right" sort of wants? Knight answered that the system had the tendency to lower standards of taste rather than raise them. "The market is no agency for improving tastes (wants) or manners" (1956, 271). Thus he asserted that "`Giving the public what it wants' usually means corrupting popular taste" (1935, 57).
But Knight did not believe, by and large, that the desires for specific goods constitute the true nature of our wants. Since he viewed the attainment of specific goods as largely instrumental or symbolic of success and achievement he looked to alternative sources of motivation for participants in the market order. Among these motivations were the urge to play and the desire for interesting activity and therefore he felt that much of economic activity had taken on the nature of a competitive game. Thus he concluded that ethical criticism of the market system might proceed from consideration of the market system as a competitive game and asked the following questions: "In so far as it is a game, what kind of game is it?" In particular is the game of business a good i.e. interesting game and is it a fair game?
Knight concluded that indeed the game of business was a most interesting game, but only for a limited number of players: for the "captains of industry" and the "Napoleons of finance" as he referred to them. However the provision of an interesting activity for this group, "has been accomplished by making monotonous drudgery of the lives of the masses who do the work" (1935, 61).
What did Knight take to be the standards of a good game? Knight asserted that a good game requires an indefinite combination of effort, luck, and ability in determining the outcome of the game. A good game must stimulate the exertion of the players, and its outcome must be in doubt. Hence luck must play a role. Differences in ability to play must also matter. The outcome must not be solely a matter of luck. But differences in the abilities of the players should not be so great as to preordain the winner.
Employing these criteria Knight concluded that the game of business fell short of the standards of a good game. The differences in the abilities of the "players" was far too great, particularly at the start of the game. Moreover, the impact of luck is often so large as to swamp the effects of ability and effort (1935, 64). And unlike other games one generally does not have the option of nonparticipation in the game of business because it is also the means of earning a livelihood. As a result everyone is compelled to play the game whether they want to or not.
VII. The Market's Influence on Character
WHAT OF THE IMPACT of the game of business on human character? Knight insisted that participation in the market order forms both the wants and character of the people (1951, 9). He felt that the competitive economic order must be considered to be largely responsible for the dominance of the motives of emulation and rivalry in Western civilization. This impact on human character, he concluded, was largely negative. As an example he observed that "business men have not become proverbial for the qualities that the best minds and most sensitive spirits of the race agree in calling noble. Business as it is and has been does not commonly display a very high order of sportsmanship...." (1935, 65).
He noted a considerable contradiction between the religious ideals of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the almost single-minded pursuit of wealth and competition as ends in themselves. Furthermore, these motives could not be reconciled with either the Greek ethic of perfection, nor the Christian ethic of spirituality. He concluded that as a result virtue in market culture had been reduced to two sorts: "The greater virtue is to win; and meticulous questions about the methods are not in the best form, provided the methods bring victory. The lesser virtue is to go out and die gracefully after having lost" (1935, 67).
VIII. The Sources of Knight's Heterodox Views
IN LIGHT OF the heterodox nature of Knight's views two questions suggest themselves. What was the source and motivation for Knight's criticism of economics and the market order? And what if any policy position followed from the radical views he had put forth?
With regard to the source of Knight's radical criticism, we may certainly rule out Marx as a source or influence on Knight's thinking. He referred to Marxism as "the gospel of hate" in rejecting it as "romantic oversimplification," "intellectually self-contradictory," "ethically nihilistic," and "monstrous" (1982, 105).
While Knight's heterodox views show little evidence of Marxist influence, it is possible to detect Institutionalist themes in his work. Knight's notice of the role of emulation and rivalry as motives, and his criticism of rationality call to mind the work of Veblen or Clarence Ayres whom Knight engaged in debate. Moreover, Knight admitted to posing as a "rip-roaring institutionalist" occasionally in debate with orthodox economists (1960, 82).
Knight's penchant for criticism seems also to have been innate. From a very early age Knight began to confront the orthodoxy of organized religion (Dewey, 1990). It was also largely responsible for his switching from philosophy to economics in that the philosophers at Cornell found Knight to have been of such a skeptical and critical mind that they shunted him off to economics (Howey, 1983). Later in life Knight admitted to an "addiction" to criticism. He defended it on the grounds that the appropriate role of the intellectual in democratic society was that of clarifying issues, suggesting possible solutions and arguments pro and con so that people could make up their own minds (1960, 121). Knight was convinced that people generally were much too romantic in their outlook, too accepting of myths and thus too much subject to influence by "salestalk" employed both in market relations and especially in politics. What was necessary was to inculcate a much more critical attitude which Knight evidently thought was best taught by example (1960, 14).
The target of Knight's criticism changed over the years. Much of Knight's criticism of the market order is to be found in Knight's earlier work. Knight's later work tended to be critical as well but more "conservative" in that it was directed toward government and its interventionist tendencies.
His criticism, he argued, was largely motivated by the needs of the times. Classical liberalism put forth an agenda for expansion of individual freedoms through restricting the role of the state. Subsequent developments, including the Great Depression and the growth of monopoly and inequality, demonstrated that individual freedom alone was not sufficient as a basis for social policy and was itself a source of social problems. It was therefore necessary in that environment to point out the flaws in the market order and suggest a more positive role for the state in ameliorating its excesses. In Knight's later years, he believed the pendulum had swung too far in that direction. He had observed the growth of government intervention in the U.S. as a result of the New Deal, and had observed the rise of fascism/ nationalism in Europe. It had then become necessary to warn of the dangers of excessive state action (1956, 281). This, in part, explains the side by side existence in his work of criticism of the market order and advocacy of laissez faire.
IX. The Possibility of Reform
WITH REGARD TO HIS CRITICISM of the market order Knight distinguished between questions of policy and evaluation of ideals. He justified his criticism of the market order on the basis of consideration of the system as an ideal on the grounds that "a clear view of its shortcomings in comparison with conceivable ideals must be of the highest value in making it better than it is" (1935, 45).
Questions of policy on the other hand, were "a purely relative matter" in the sense of comparison of possible alternatives (ibid). At one point Knight did offer a radical alternative. In an extended essay written in 1932 entitled "The Case for Communism: From the Standpoint of an Ex-Liberal" (1991), Knight offered the view that "those who want a change and wish to vote intelligently should vote Communist" (1991, 57). This exhortation was not, however, offered seriously but rather reflects the depths of Knight's frustration with the nature of democratic politics and economic policy of that era. He "confessed" that he had no idea how to remake society or what that ideal might look like (ibid).
The key issue according to Knight was the question of the effectiveness of economic reform carried out through democratic political action. Would such action result in improvement relative to the alternative of market relations? He argued that socialism would bring about little in the way of economic improvement but great likelihood of loss of freedom (1941a, 827). Thus in his 1950 address to the American Economic Association, Knight asserted that curing society's ills by substituting government in place of the market could only be justified by the "psychology of romantic prejudice and screwy thinking" (1956, 280). Government is inherently subject to the same sort of "failures" as are markets, only worse, including centralization and concentration of power (ibid). Thus the substitution of government for business was likened to "jumping from the frying pan into the fire."
In regard to the possibility of intelligent social change, Knight frequently stressed the inherent scarcity of the necessary knowledge and attitude. If individual choice behavior was to a degree characterized by irrationality, collective action was even more so. In the face of these difficulties, Knight stressed the need to avoid making things even worse (1960, 10). The critics of the market often failed to realize this as a possibility (1935, 58). Unfortunately, argued Knight, "... as the world is built, the chances of loss are overwhelmingly greater than the chances of gain in any effort to escape the ills we have by flying to others that we know not of" (1956, 277). He therefore concluded that "since order is the absolute requisite of civilized life, we must stick to the order that is, until there is reasonable agreement on changes that will be on balance beneficial" (ibid). Knight felt however that the achievement of "reasonable agreement" through open discussion was not likely to be achieved any time soon, thus implying a very "conservative" attitude toward reform of the market order.
X. Conclusion
THE EXAMINATION HERE of Knight`s criticism of the market order reveals a side of his work that has not been generally associated with his name. The claim that he was "the most orthodox of orthodox economists" should perhaps be stood on its head in that it would be more accurate to have labeled him "the most heterodox of orthodox economists". Knight delighted in pointing out the paradoxes of human existence, and his own work reveals a paradoxical bent in that while he was one of the harshest critics of the market order he was also one of its staunchest defenders. This Knight was able to do by separating questions of policy, which he argued must be based upon a comparison of possible alternatives, from questions of ideals which faced no such constraint. (*) [William S. Kern, PhD, is associate professor of ecomonics at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo, MI 49008.]
Notes
1. Knight's heterodoxy has been noticed BY other writers such as, his students George Stigler and Don Patinkin. But there is room, I believe for another examination of Knight's views on these issues.
This I defend on grounds cited by Knight himself for his own tendency to repeat arguments. He was fond of quoting Herbert Spencer to the effect "That it is only by varied iteration that one may impose alien truths on reluctant minds."
This I defend on grounds cited by Knight himself for his own tendency to repeat arguments. He was fond of quoting Herbert Spencer to the effect "that it is only by varied iteration that one may impose alien truths on reluctant minds."
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