Back in the mid-1980s, Dave Prychitko and I were in graduate school together and we had the amazing experience of having James Buchanan and Kenneth Boulding as professors in the same semester. Buchanan spent a lot of time that term discussing Adam Smith's deer and beaver model. But so did Boulding. Both Buchanan and Boulding also were very proud that they were students of Frank Knight. I asked Boulding after one class as we walked back to his office, why are we talking about the deer and beaver model over and over again in both Buchanan and his class. He characteristically laughed and smiled at me, and simply said something along the lines of, "My dear Peter, that is just the great Frank Knight approach to teaching. He either talked about that deer and beaver model, or he commented on religion." I was confused, but I also put my confusion aside because I had to work on my next assignment from Buchanan related to variations on the deer and beaver model.
Tomorrow in my PhD course on modern history of economic thought I am discussing the transition from classical economics to the founding of neoclassical theory. We are reading Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect and Mirowski's More Heat Than Light. But as I was thinking about how to stimulate discussion of the refinements in the economic way of thinking during this period, I came back to Adam Smith's deer and beaver discussion from Bk 1, chap 6: "In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labor necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labor to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days' or two hours' labor, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day's or one hour's labor."
What do you think I am doing by invoking this thought experiment in relationship to the development of economics in the late classical and early neoclassical period? And how do you think it relates to what Knight, Boulding and Buchanan were trying to do in their use of the thought experiment in teaching? I wonder if my students will use Smith's example 20 years from now when they are teaching their graduate students.