Adam Smith: Central Figure of Liberalism and Daniel Klein’s Program

When considering questions about liberalism, it is important to look back in history at the foundational discussions between principal theorists. Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason University (GMU), argues that Adam Smith is the central figure in articulating liberalism. While his students read the works of many thinkers, including David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Butler, Edmund Burke, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, and John Locke, Klein states that Adam Smith specifically is a great meeting place for students and scholars with different perspectives.

Dan Klein

“I think Adam Smith is really crucial just to getting the true character of the heart of liberalism right in this big conversation that’s going on.”

– Daniel Klein

In recent years Klein himself has focused much of his work on political theory and intellectual history, which intersects with economics, studying the writings of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, among others. In 2013 Klein wrote “Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation,” drawing connections between spontaneous order, Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” and other classical liberal ideas.

Klein’s focus on the arc of liberalism over time stems from his interest in moral philosophy, as well as indifference toward disciplinary boundaries.“My tendency more and more is to disregard disciplinary boundaries,” Klein says. “It’s all moral philosophy, it’s all about: What’s good for the whole? Where’s wisdom and virtue in the matter?” Many disciplines deal with moral philosophy and the ontology of the person.

Adam Smith portrait courtesy of Library of Congress

“In Adam Smith’s time, history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, jurisprudence was all moral philosophy; it was already all together and interconnected, and it was really only later that separations were made.”

– Daniel Klein

Klein started the Adam Smith Program at GMU, which he leads alongside Erik Matson, a Mercatus senior research fellow, and Donald Boudreaux, a fellow IHS alum and GMU economics professor. The Adam Smith Program offers students opportunities to expand their network as well as their knowledge of Adam Smith’s work. “I think the Adam Smith Program is extremely important because Adam Smith is extremely important,” Klein says.

Through the Adam Smith Program, Klein runs a seminar series called The Invisible Hand Seminar, which brings students together to discuss a particular scholar’s current classical liberal research. Through Academic Event Support, IHS frequently supports the program by offsetting the cost of securing speakers.

Klein also hosts GMU’s Adam Smith Reading Group, which meets five times per semester, and has utilized Academic Event Support from IHS to help cover the cost of some books for participating students in the past. “We buy loads of books for students,” Klein said. “They’re reading Liberty Fund books from the natural law series, or the Adam Smith collected work series, and so on.”

Organizers Dan Klein (far left, back row) and Thomas Merrill (third from left, back row) with IHS staff and other participants at the 2018 “Smith, Hume, Liberalism, and Esotericism” event.

In addition to these activities, Klein leads special events and projects in the Adam Smith Program, where he takes his students to other campuses around the country for symposia and conferences. He has connected his students to professors and other aspiring academics at a variety of campuses, including local venues like Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. Some conferences, like the 2021 Adam Smith Society Conference at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, bring Adam Smith scholars together from around the world. With the support of IHS, Klein also hosted a conference in 2018 on “Smith, Hume, Liberalism, and Esotericism,” which prepared papers for publication in a special issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

One of Klein’s top students, Erik Matson, serves as the deputy director of the Adam Smith Program. “Erik and I are also collaborators and co-authors,” Klein said. “We work very closely together and he’s doing very exciting things, as are many of my former students.” Klein often coauthors papers with his students, setting them up for success with strong publication records.

“We’re developing a community that continues and that goes on and teaches.”

– Daniel Klein

Many of Klein’s students have become successful scholars, carrying on the classical liberal tradition through their own work today. Abigail Devereaux, for instance, was a student of Klein’s who later became an assistant professor of economics at Wichita State University.

In fact, many of Klein’s students have gone on to secure academic positions at universities around the country, including Hillsdale College, The King’s College, the University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University, and James Madison University. Some of those former students are now program directors or chairs at academic institutions, influencing the landscape of higher education and scholarship for the next generation of students.

You can read more about the impact of Klein’s guidance on students, including Erik Matson and Abigail Deveraux, in the article “Coming Together Through Adam Smith: A Conversation with Daniel Klein’s Students” on the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

The classical liberal community has played a significant role in Klein’s life and career, from his childhood connections to his current roles as economics professor, interdisciplinary scholar, journal editor, and program director. His exploration of classical liberalism began through his friendship with Tyler Cowen, who grew up with Klein and is now a colleague at George Mason University. Cowen introduced Klein to the classical liberal tradition and kindled his interest in Austrian economics. Both Klein and Cowen, along with other high school classmates, read and discussed the ideas of classical liberals, from Henry Hazlitt to Frederic Bastiat.

By the time he finished high school, Klein knew he wanted to pursue studies in economics. He discovered IHS mentors who encouraged him and provided feedback on his research during his graduate studies of Austrian economics at New York University. He participated in a variety of IHS fellowships and seminars, as well.

“There’s someone who wants to read your drafts and gives you feedback and is rooting for you, taking an interest in you, connecting you to people who know about the topic, and then the collaborations develop out of that.”

– Daniel Klein

Klein met other scholars and future collaborators at IHS programs, including historian and fellow IHS alum John Majewski, with whom he later coauthored a number of papers on turnpikes and toll roads. “I worked quite a lot with John and we produced a whole number of papers on private toll roads of the nineteenth century; and that was great fun,” Klein said. “I thoroughly enjoyed that and I certainly learned a lot from John.”

At the end of his graduate studies, Klein went to Stanford University as a visiting scholar in the economics department. He received funding through an IHS fellowship, and Klein notes that the opportunity allowed him to finish his dissertation and establish himself in the academic community in California. “I spent a year at Stanford meeting new people, learning the scene there, working, finishing up my dissertation, and then went on the job market from there,” Klein said.

After graduate school Klein accepted positions at the University of California, Irvine, as an assistant professor of economics and then at Santa Clara University as an associate professor of economics. In 2005 Klein accepted the role of economics professor at George Mason University (GMU) — the same university where he had obtained his bachelor’s degree roughly two decades earlier, and where IHS resides. Today Klein continues to participate in IHS programs, lending his expertise in discussions and lectures and inspiring the next generation of scholars.

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