Talking Points: G. Warren Nutter and the Role of Discussion in a Knightian Foreign Policy and Political Economy

Christopher R. Fleming

Advisor: David M Levy, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Donald J Boudreaux, Peter J Boettke

Online Location, Online
June 14, 2021, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM


The “discussion tradition” in political economy takes seriously the contention that language and communication function not only as forms of exchange but also for the preservation and progression of civic life and the individuals within the body politic. Many of the early political economists were adherents to the tradition. Unfortunately, the tradition has largely been left undeveloped in modern political economy. Large elements of democratic politics and government functions have been left untouched by those who continue on the arguments and methodological commitments of the early political economists. This dissertation investigates an unexplored event in United States political history as a expression of the discussion tradition.

The first chapter of this dissertation, “Frank Knight in the Pentagon – G. Warren Nutter’s Application of Government by Discussion to Foreign Policy,” presents Nutter’s service as an Assistant Secretary of Defense as a case study in the application of the discussion tradition to modern political economy. Foreign policy historically has been isolated from the influences of those outside of the executive branch. By using Nutter’s published critiques of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, I show that Nutter’s economics played an important role in how he interpreted foreign policy ought to be conducted. Nutter inherited his focus on “government by discussion” from Frank Knight as well has many aspects of Knight’s social philosophy. Through these lenses, Nutter seeks to make foreign policy a truly public policy, a regime governed and attached by the values of the body politic.

In the second chapter, “A Knightian-Nutterian Approach to International Relations and Foreign Policy Analysis,” I use the disparate strands of thought within Nutter’s published work to construct what a truly Knightian foreign policy may look like. Like Knight, Nutter focused on the stability requirements for order. These requirements were determined by the discussion between members of the public as well as the representative governing body. The Knightian and Nutterian aspects of such a foreign policy are de-homogenized and distilled into what may be a unique form of foreign policy distinguishable from that of other modern liberal political economists.

The third chapter, “Heterogeneity in the Virginia School,” develops Nutter’s focus on stability and order and uses it as a lens through which to consider the founding of the Virginia School of Political Economy and the various institutional struggles that it faced in its early years. Using archival material, I show that there existed within the Virginia School a variety of viewpoints such that the charges of homogeneity and thus epistemic closure may be considered misjudgments by political opponents. Recognition of the heterogeneity of viewpoints may open up new avenues of research into institutional and constitutional political economies consisting of sympathetic and somewhat romantic agents.