After a long hiatus, Adam Smith Lives! is back! As the school year ramps up, it’s time to think again about how intellectual history informs our lives today. A good deal has happened in the history of ideas since the ASSAs in January. But rather than promote the Summer Institute and the HES Annual conference (both terrific) in this returning post, I’ll begin to connect my new position in The Jepson School of Leadership Studies with economics.
Economists today typically conceptualize what we do in terms of individuals. Self interest is, after all, about the self. Choices are made by individuals. But many of the interesting problems we tackle actually have to do with how a bunch of ‘selves’ come together and interact as a unit, a group or a polity. Public choice economics has done the very important service of reminding all that policy is made by individuals motivated like the rest of us to look after the self. With David Levy, I’m now working on experts and expertise. One of our key themes is that experts and leaders are self motivated. They’re also, and this not surprisingly comes from Adam Smith, sympathetic. Sympathetic with each other, the group that matters to them most, first. Sympathetic with clients, as well.
But how do we move from the self to the group? To the extent that economists study this problem, one insight has emerged over and over again. Conversation, discussion, language – whatever we call the means by which we interact – is a key to facilitating exchange and other cooperative behavior. Frank Knight, the last great economist to think and write about the value of conversation for leadership, wrote in the Ethics of Competition that “The problem of social action is almost wholly a problem of leadership.” (p. 349). He insisted on the value of discussion amongst equals: “The idea of free society is that social problems should be settled in their large outlines by discussion in which all normal adults participate equally, and in further detail by leadership intelligently chosen by all through public discussion and leading with the moral consent and co-operation of the masses.” (p. 352)
Leadership might be regarded as a facilitating mechanism, a way to help the discussion take place -- the leader talks? the leader talks first? the leader enforces rules of collegiality and respect throughout the conversation? Interesting experimental possibilities abound.