658. F. H. Knight to Harrod , 19 April 1937 [a]

[Replies to a letter not found, answered by 684 ]

Department of Economics, University of Chicago #

19 April 1937

Dear Mr. Harrod:

Many thanks for your gracious letter just received; and also, belatedly, for your note at Christmas time, and besides these for the kind words you found it possible to say regarding The Ethics of Competition, in the Economic Journal. [1] During these last months I have been intending from day to day to write you, at least the courtesy of an acknowledgement, but have just procrastinated. I suspect that a mind reader would find that I was a little embarrassed as to how to express my appreciation, and on the other hand, was in a little of a dilemma as to whether to "start an argument" [b] on one or two points. There comes to mind a couplet from Racine, which Du Bois-Reymond quoted to advantage on a certain occasion,

J'ose dire pourtant que je n'ai merité

Ni cet excès d'honneur, ni cette indignité. [2]

But the word "indignité" is not in place, in the English meaning. As a matter of fact I rarely feel that I have deserved either praise or blame, or most criticism which comes my way. (In a few cases, critics have pointed out definite errors or omissions, but in most cases what they say seems to me either to be irrelevant, or at best to imply that I did not succeed in saying what I was trying to say, the latter being often enough the case.) Moreover, I may add while ruminating in this vein, my conviction that the work of social scientists would make more rapid progress towards truth and be much more effective if the personality of authors could somehow be kept out of it. In the natural science, I think, it doesn't matter nearly so much because assertions sooner or later come to an objective test. But the history of controversies in natural sciences seems to confirm my theory, in that it surely makes clear enough what would have happened if points at issue had not been put to a test outside the realm of argument.

Now as to Keynes. In this case, it must be Keynes, and not merely his book! I must begin by saying frankly that my review stopped considerably short of complete candor as to my opinion, and my feelings as well! [3] The book literally made me angry. I think it is "full" of unnecessary muddlement as well as obscurity, and had no business to be published in anything like the form in which it actually appeared. In content, I admit that it emphasizes some things which need emphasis, and I stated that fact repeatedly in the review. But I cannot see that any of these emphases are new, or that Keynes's treatment contributes anything toward clearing up the problems. When, after hard labor, one finally extracts from the confusion what the author apparently meant to say, it seems to me in most cases either to lead in definitely wrong directions or to go wildly to extremes, so that it simply cannot be taken seriously in anything like a literal interpretation. The value of the book to me is just what I stated in the review; the labor and struggle required to make any sense out of it did make me do a lot of hard thinking about the problems, to some purpose as I hope. But even here I must record the reservation that I had never tried to be a cycle or money theorist, and I would question whether the book would have even this value, at least in the same sense, to a worker in the field. I am confirmed in this impression by letters and statements from such people as Haberler, C. O. Hardy, Viner, and others. (The last two did think that I was rather severe, in view of the amenities of reviewing, even though both expressly agreed with everything I said about the book.)

It seems to me that two sets of issues are raised, both impossible to discuss in the scope of a letter of course. The first might be the general conception of economic theory, and how it is to make progress towards greater usefulness--if the trend of civilization is such as to allow such work to continue at all. In this connection, it has long seemed to me that what is necessary above all is some clarity as to what is meant by "economic dynamics", and what sort of a theory of economic change is possible. In this field, I hesitate to express myself at all. It seems that so much must be said if one says anything, and the first thing which has to be said with all possible emphasis is that the extant work (as known to me and judged by me) simply does not make any serious attempt to get at the real issues. There is no dynamics of economic change, and it is questionable whether the word ought to be used at all. One reason I hesitate to develop work in this field is the effrontery required to do the ground clearing which I think to be necessary, together with the fact that the results which I could offer with some confidence are so completely negative.

The other issue relates to the behavior of economists and other social scientists, and in this connection equally bad manners would be required for frankness. One reason the Keynes book irked me so is that it is in a way so [c] typical of what is, and what I think should not be. There is enormously too much publication anyway, and certainly too much publication of immature work. (I think!) But the problems here disturb me profoundly. I don't know what should be done to bring about greater mutual understanding among economists and less wrangling over issues which are not defined down to the point where there is any issue, in books and journals which ostensibly exist to record the progress of something which is supposed to be making progress.

This brings me back to the point suggested at first, and particularly by the second of the quoted lines. You intimated that my attitude towards fascism suggested a certain "fascination" with the doctrine. [4] As far as I can tell, there is no basis in fact for this interpretation. The movement of western culture toward dictatorship and corporativism in one form or another simply takes the meaning out of life for me. But the movement is real, all the same, and I don't think either your country or mine [d] will probably escape it. I don't think I am entirely ignorant of certain differences between English and American political life which point in the direction you suggest in the review. But I am afraid that what they reduce to at bottom is simply the fact that, for obvious historical reasons, things change somewhat more slowly in England than in this country. In particular, the tradition of aristocracy survives there, and is vitally important. But it is decaying there, and not building up here, in any effective sense. It is hard to see that political problems, and particularly those centering immediately in economics, are being more "intelligently" dealt with in England than in America in recent years and right now. I think the reversal of the English attitude on free trade is one of the profoundest symptoms in the whole world trend. It seems to show that List was right after all!

It looks as if I may have an opportunity to "call" at Oxford about a year from now, as I have been invited to give some lectures at the London School. [5]

Very sincerely yours,

Frank H Knight

PS I got to the end of an unreasonable maximum of pages without expressly thanking you for the reprint. It may also interest you to know that I include in the "required reading" for a course in current Discussion in Economic Theory which I occasionally offer, your article on Imperfect Competition in the "QJE" a couple of years ago. [6]

F.H.K.

Mr. R.F. Harrod, Christ Church, Oxford, England

  1. 1. Harrod, "The Ethics of Competition" ( 1936:3 ).

    2. These words are pronounced by Junie in Racine's Britannicus (1669), act II, scene III (Butler edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967, p. 97).

    3. F. H. Knight, "Unemployment: and Mr. Keynes's Revolution in Economic Theory", The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 3, February 1937, pp. 100-123.

    4. Harrod, "The Ethics of Competition" ( 1936:3 ), p. 103.

    5. Knight's visit to England is discussed in letters 716 and 815 R.

    6. Harrod, "Doctrines of Imperfect Competition" ( 1934:3 ).

    1. a. TLS with autograph correction and addition, four pages (of which pages 2 and 3 are numbered) on three leaves (the autograph postscript being written on the verso of the last leaf), in HP IV-689.

      b. Ts: «".».

      c. Ts: «to».

      d. Ts: «mine,».


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