There are many Supply-Side Liberal Heroes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and with some additional fortitude, 7), but up until now, there was only one declared Supply-Side Liberal saint: Adam Smith, the Patron Saint of Supply-Side Liberalism. (Since July 30, 2012 no one has ventured a serious devil’s advocate case about Adam Smith.) Today, I want to declare another: Clay Christensen. To be a Supply-Side Liberal Saint, one must be both a Supply-Side Liberal hero and of unimpeachable character.
From conversations, I have found that Clay Christensen is not well known among economists, but he should be. First of all, in our sister field of business, Clay is at the very top. For example, in November 2013, Clay won the award for top management thinker in the world for the second time in a row in the once-every-two-years Thinkers50 award. Andrew Hill described it this way in the Financial Times:
But the climax was Thinkers50′s “Best Picture” award – for the management thinker judged most influential – which went to Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and perhaps the nicest man ever to lecture at Harvard Business School.
Second, Clay’s theory of disruptive innovation counts as powerful economic theory that explains much about the world we live in. There is a rigor to it that goes far beyond all the other bits of management theory I have encountered. But it is reading his books that will convince you. Here is not only great insight, but also helpful approaches to many of our most pressing problems. In the last few months I have devoured this much of his body of work:
- The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail
- The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth
- The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators
- Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns
- The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out
- The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care
All of that is enough to make Clay a hero, but how does Clay pass the devil’s advocate’s gauntlet to be made a saint? That is, how can I be so confident I won’t be embarrassed by a future revelation about some skeleton in Clay’s closet? First, as you can see from the quotation above, many people think Clay is one of the nicest men they have ever met. I am among them. Back in 1977, when I was headed to Harvard as a freshman, and Clay was headed to the first year of his MBA program, I carpooled across the country from Utah with him, and then stayed with him for a week or so until I could get into my new dorm room. That time with Clay made an unforgettable impression on me. I had no idea how eminent he would become, but I knew how good he was. I have hardly seen Clay since then, and haven’t had any serious conversations with Clay since 1977, but other observers (including my daughter, Diana, who was a student in his class in the second year of her MBA program) still attest to his goodness. And I have the advantage of the vetting he has undergone for relatively high office in the Mormon church, which screens for many types (though not all types) of sins.
In the coming months (which may stretch into years given the volume of his work) I plan to feature the work of Clay and his coauthors in a slow, thoroughgoing, methodical way, much as I have featured John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Like On Liberty, Clay’s work is worth cutting to pieces–blog-post-sized morsels, ready for delectation.