Frank H. Knight on Democracy as Discussion

16 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2011

See all articles by Ross B. Emmett

Ross B. Emmett

Arizona State University (ASU) - Center for the Study of Economic Liberty; PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

Date Written: August 15, 2011


Over the last thirty years of his life, the Chicago economist Frank H. Knight concentrated his efforts on the elaboration of a new liberalism for the post-war era. Three things were necessary, he argued, to restore health to liberalism. First, free society required an appreciation for the basic economic principles of a free market economy, and of their limitations as guides to action. Secondly, democratic society needed to recognize the benefits and limitations of political solutions to social problems. Democratic action was essentially government by discussion, and hence the potential for persuasion, fraudulent speech and salesmanship should be recognized alongside the acceptance of the exploratory nature of all social action. Finally, a free society required free and responsible individuals, which meant that liberalism needed an independent conception of the ethics of freedom.

The dilemma of Knight’s theory of liberalism is that his three-fold conception of liberalism stalled on his inability to articulate how liberalism could generate an independent conception of ethics. Thus, while he raised key issues regarding the prospects of free societies, he could not settle the fundamental question of whether “human nature has what it takes to solve the problems … raised by its liberation” (Knight, Intelligence and Democratic Action, p. 141).

Keywords: Frank Knight, Democracy, Ethics, Liberalism

JEL Classification: A12, A13, B31, H10

Suggested Citation

Emmett, Ross B., Frank H. Knight on Democracy as Discussion (August 15, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Ross B. Emmett (Contact Author)

Arizona State University (ASU) - Center for the Study of Economic Liberty ( email )

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PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

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