Vision in Economic Thought: Remarks upon Receipt of the Veblen-Commons Award

Journal of Economic Issues, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Vision in Economic Thought: Remarks upon Receipt of the Veblen-Commons Award


I fell into the history of economic thought more or less by chance, having signed up as a just discharged veteran at the New School for Social Research, which I had never visited before in my life, for a course given by Adolph Lowe, of whom I had never heard, in the economics of Harrod and Domar, whose names were not on the syllabus of the course in which I studied the mysteries of Keynesian economics at Harvard in the late 1930s.

The course with Lowe was the first of many I subsequently took under that remarkable teacher, at whose receipt of the Veblen-Commons Award in 1979 I was privileged to speak. I visited him in Germany a little over a year ago to help celebrate his 100th birthday, and a few weeks ago had the pleasure of writing him that I would soon be standing in his footsteps, grateful not only to this Association, but also to him, without whom I would assuredly not be here.

Adolph Lowe was crucial to my economic education in two ways. One was that be was deeply skeptical of the tautologies and formalisms that already in his day were coming more and more to displace the historical and institutional approach that he believed to be essential for economic understanding. Lowe made me see that economics, which was perhaps accurately perceived as a "predictive" study in the days of relatively self-governing capitalism, could no longer be so regarded in what he called the age of "guided capitalism" [see especially Lowe 1966]. He made me a policy-minded interventionist, which was not so very hard for someone whose earlier teachers had been Paul Sweezy, Seymour Harris, Alvin Hansen, Edward Mason, and Wassily Leontief

The other reason that Lowe played so significant a part in my development was that he led me into the field that has become my specialty. It was in his seminars on Smith, Ricardo, and Marx that I began to see economics as a succession of extraordinary social dramas-a perception that led me to write The Worldly Philosophers while I was still his student. In the last edition of that book, I tell how I worked up my courage to tell Lowe that I intended to write a history of their world-shaping ideas. Drawing himself up to his not very great height, a stern expression on his face, he said to me: "That you cannot do!" It is a measure of the man that when I nervously asked him to read a draft of the first three chapters a few months later, he called me up after the next class and declared with equal apodictic force: "That you must do!" With his help, that is what I did.

For a long time, I found the most interesting aspect of the history of economic thought to lie in the analytical power of the scenarios in which the great economists described the trajectory of the economic system. To go to the bottom of the complex interactions by which Smith's Society of Perfect Liberty pursued its majestic upward and then downward path, or to follow the extraordinary difference that Ricardo's concept of rent introduced into an otherwise Smithian society, or to trace out the dynamics of Marxian contradictions-or, for that matter, of Marshallian resolutions-was to see economics as a wider, as well as a deeper, discipline than one could perceive from a micro, macro, or any other vantage point. I have always felt that the history of economic thought was a way to observe economics on the grand scale, in which the whole emerged as more than the sum of its parts.

Gradually, however, my interest shifted from analytics to something else which, following Schumpeter, I have called "vision." When all is said and done, that which ultimately separates Ricardo from Smith is not just an analytical concept of rent, but a social vision in which surplus is diverted from the hands of a wealth-producing class into the hands of a wealth-consuming class. That which is "visionary" is not the analytics of Ricardian rent. It is the Ricardian construal of the landlord class as uninterested in production. After all, if landlords become finance capitalists, their revenues would finance production almost as effectively as if they were themselves manufacturers. …

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