This week, an economics professor from a small liberal arts college in Virginia did something no one else has ever done: He handily defeated the sitting House Majority Leader in a primary election.
David Brat’s upset of Eric Cantor has sent shockwaves through the GOP establishment. Democrats are scrambling to tar the insurgent as an extremist Tea Party candidate. Yet Professor Brat’s published research is hardly extreme. His interests lie in understanding what drives economic growth and why some societies — and their institutional structures — outperform others.
Brat goes back to the work of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, in an attempt to identify how individuals and societies can prosper. Importantly, he understands the power of markets, the ability of decentralized decision making by individuals pursuing their own self interest to improve the welfare of society as a whole, an insight made by Adam Smith in 1776 in his opus “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes and Wealth of Nations.”
Markets are powerful means of allocating resources and coordinating the plans of disparate individuals through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange. The engine of capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty; Brat’s ardent support for markets reflects his work on these economic questions.
In addition to his economic credentials, Brat also earned a master’s degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary, so it is not surprising that his interests are broad. As Brat notes, “Many academics fail to see the full system which Smith had in mind as they only look at the economic system he constructed. Economics is only a sub-system.” Even so, his work tackles problems at the core of economics, attempting to identify the forces at work that guide human behavior.
Coauthored by Dr. Wayne Brough