Coming Together Through Adam Smith: A Conversation with Daniel Klein’s Students

Community has always been a central building block for Daniel Klein and his students as they discuss Adam Smith and the intellectual history and theory of liberalism. Klein, a professor of economics at George Mason University (GMU), has organized and hosted programs for students interested in exploring the moral and philosophical foundations laid by Smith and other classical liberal thinkers. 

In 2009, Klein debuted the Adam Smith Program — which features the Invisible Hand Seminar series, reading groups, and other vessels of collaboration — for students passionate about the ideas of Adam Smith. We spoke with three of his students about what the program has meant to them and how it has impacted their scholarly career.

Erik Matson

Erik Matson started as a music major, but when he transferred to GMU for his undergraduate degree, he became introduced to classical liberal ideas and was hooked. He first heard about Klein from several of his friends, some of whom were planning to take Klein’s course on Adam Smith’s first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments. At about the same time, Klein published his popular book “Knowledge and Coordination” and was scheduled to give a talk about it at a GMU lecture.

That’s when Matson decided to enroll in Klein’s course the following semester. “Dan has been the single greatest influence on my thinking,” he says. Klein’s keen eye toward the larger picture — the so what? — is what makes for such fruitful conversations about Adam Smith and the thinkers of his ilk, he observes. In addition, Klein avoids clinging to any one discipline, instead preferring to dissect Smithian thought from multiple angles, not just economics.

“Dan is probably the most imaginative and unusual economist I’ve ever met. He’s always encouraged me to develop and pursue my interests, even if they’re a bit outside the bounds of what economists normally do. He’s helped me better understand liberalism and its relationship to the good of humankind.”

Erik Matson
Erik Matson

After taking Klein’s course, Matson pursued his PhD under Klein’s tutelage. A passion for studying Scottish enlightenment thinkers was matched by the community Klein helped to construct. Matson was not only able to dive into the minds of Adam Smith and David Hume, but he was also able to make connections with other scholars interested in eighteenth-century intellectual history.

The Invisible Hand Seminar began as a small group for Klein’s students to present papers to one another but has since expanded to include reputed scholars of Adam Smith from universities across the country. IHS has provided financial support to the seminar series for several years, a partnership that has continued to harvest good conversations and productive research.

A significant moment for Matson was when he got to meet and engage with Thomas Merrill, an associate professor at American University and scholar of David Hume. His 2015 book “Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment” weighed heavily into Matson’s own political thought.

“I’ve benefitted a lot from getting to know Tom [Merrill] and his work,” says Matson.  “He’s been a mentor to me and has inspired my scholarship in many ways.” The Adam Smith Program has clearly forged a community that stretches beyond the mere bounds of GMU students and faculty, bridging connections across the academy and across disciplines. 

Kacey Reeves

Kacey Reeves, an economics PhD student at GMU, has also experienced the broad influence Klein has cultivated with his students over the years. While an undergraduate at Hillsdale College, some of her professors, including two of Klein’s former students, taught classical liberalism which introduced Reeves to the field.

When Reeves started taking classes at GMU, she heard about the Invisible Hand Seminar from fellow students and decided to give it a shot. While the Smithian research topics piqued her interest, it was the community that convinced her to get involved. “The community is a big part of the Adam Smith Program, it’s a big reason why I’m involved,” she notes. 

Indeed, without Klein’s intellectual guidance, Reeves explains that her research might never have touched Smith’s ideas. “Before taking Prof. Klein’s class, my research did not focus on Smith at all,” she says. “Now, the projects that interest me the most are inspired by his works. The Adam Smith Program significantly changed the track of my research.”

Klein has even influenced Reeves’ teaching style. She tries to be as interactive with her students as Klein is towards his. When Klein heard that she would be teaching the same course he had once taught, he immediately shared his class notes so that Reeves would have a helpful benchmark on which to base her class lectures.

At her first IHS conference, Reeves recalls the wealth of stimulating conversations among so many enthusiastic scholars. She describes IHS as filling “an important role for scholars to come together and discuss ideas in a very safe and encouraging environment.” She adds that the link between IHS and the Adam Smith Program have made for an enriching graduate school experience.

Abigail Devereaux

Abigail Devereaux

Early in her academic career, Abigail Devereaux latched onto the world of physics, anticipating future research in theoretical particle physics to be exact. She was always fond of the subject, and when she was younger, had enjoyed reading the popular physicist Richard Feynman. But economics and classical liberal ideas were always swirling in the back of her mind when she finished her undergraduate degree in physics and her master’s in mathematics.

Devereaux, an assistant professor of economics at Wichita State University, found that her passion for physics and economics are very much interconnected. Her research focus on complex systems borrows from both fields, demonstrating that social systems can be explained via similar concepts from the natural sciences but observing a much less predictable outcome from those that exist in nature.

Even before Devereaux entered GMU’s economics PhD program, she encountered Daniel Klein’s work in papers and on blog sites. In these pieces, Klein was writing about very similar ideas Devereaux had been thinking and researching about during her stint in the private sector.

What really cemented her commitment to taking Klein’s course, however, was reading his book “Knowledge and Coordination,” which she says, “expressed my vision of self-organizing systems where people voluntarily engaged with each other, but where there are still rules.” 

During this time as a graduate student in economics, Devereaux remembers how new and unfixed everything seemed. Although things were moving fast, she cites her experience with IHS as providing a steady hand, guiding her along the way as she continued to navigate a hectic schedule and juggle a seemingly unlimited workload.   

“At IHS events, they gave us the space to become better thinkers. They gave us the ability to go very deep into an idea by focusing resources on students and giving them access to fantastic scholars. We were able to do things that the ordinary PhD student just can’t do without a network and the resources that IHS provides.”

– Abigail Devereaux

Today, Devereaux is looking to establish her own program in complexity economics, modeled after her experiences with IHS and Klein’s Adam Smith Program. “I want to make sure that the tools and methods of complexity economics are available to people who want to learn them,” she says.

As she continues to work toward this goal, Devereaux plans to find more ways for scholars to coordinate with one another and to study the world of complex systems. By doing this, she hopes to carry on the passion Klein gave to her as a graduate student. “I’ve never met another professor quite like Klein,” she reflects, “the care he shows toward his students is unparalleled.”

Klein has left an indelible mark on his students, empowering each of them to expand their own knowledge through collaboration and community with other scholars. His partnership with IHS has expanded the Adam Smith Program by providing financial and organizational support. In addition, this collaboration has widened connections across disciplines and facilitated scholarly engagements in new and productive ways.

“Klein spends time with his students and invests in their projects and research,” says Reeves, “but he also cares about how we are presenting our ideas and making sure that they are compelling.” This degree of care has enriched his students’ body of research, both in and beyond academia.

Learn more about the IHS community and the research these scholars are currently conducting on the IHS blog.

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