Discussant Remarks

By Ramstad, Yngve | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Discussant Remarks


Ramstad, Yngve, Journal of Economic Issues


It has been the rage in this "triple aught" year to reflect upon the events of both the past 100 and the past 1,000 years, to identify and assess the significant achievements and failures occurring during the period of interest, and to speculate about the future that will likely unfold as the years march on. Institutional economics is widely understood to have its genesis in the writings of Thorstein Veblen, whose work first appeared only slightly more than 100 years ago. Hence, a year ago, when thinking about the upcoming program, I thought the Year 2000 appeared to be an appropriate time to subject institutional economics to the same sort of retrospective examination. I then decided to organize a panel for a session titled, "Institutional Economics at the Millennium: Its Past and Future," which is the title of this session. As incoming president of AFEE, I thought it would be permissible for me to use this opportunity to explain what I had in mind in putting the session together, rather than to formally di scuss the papers.

Guided by motives that I will indicate shortly, I decided to put together an "allstar" panel consisting of both "notables" capable of providing an authoritative retrospective assessment of institutional economics' past and/or whose work points to currently unseen possibilities regarding its future. I believe I had spectacular success in assembling such a panel, for we are fortunate to have had before us an exceptionally distinguished group. Warren Samuels, the 1995 recipient of the Veblen-Commons award, is arguably the most prominent self-identified institutional economist alive today, and the breadth and depth of his published writings are, to put it bluntly, astonishing. Malcolm Rutherford, who recently served as president of the History of Economics Society, is the most able and insightful historian of economics currently writing about the history of institutional economics. Geoff Hodgson, who played a pivotal role in the founding of our sister organization, the European Association of Evolutionary Politi cal Economy (EAEPE), has distinguished himself by publishing four spectacularly panoramic books and a long list of articles on topics of vital interest to all institutional economists. Finally, Phil Mirowski, in my estimation, is simply the most creative voice within economics. He is currently laboring to merge an institutional vision with "cutting edge" developments in other sciences and in the realm of scientific technique.

Unfortunately, Phil was not able to be with us due to illness, and, for the same reason, he was unable to finish his paper. (Editor's note: Yngve Ramstad did present to those in attendance a synopsis of Mirowski's current work on "markets as evolving computational entities" and attempted to point out how it reinforces some central contentions of institutional economists. Ramstad's presentation is not included in this volume. For an overview of markets as evolving computational entities, see Mirowski and Somefun [1998].)

What, then, were my motives for assembling this particular group to guide us through a centenary appraisal of institutional economics? As is well known, AFEE was formed--more than 30 years ago now--to promote scholarship thing under the category of institutional economics by sponsoring the JEI and by providing individuals who desire to pursue such scholarship with an institutional home base via annual meetings. At the time of its founding, AFEE's membership was crudely divisible into three distinct "subgroups," characterized by Lewis Hill [1978] as an "Eastern" group inspired by Mitchell; a Commons group; and a "Western" group, employing or extending Ayres's fusion of Veblen and Dewey. To this day, AFEE fliers proclaim that "the intellectual heritage of AFEE is that of the Original Institutional Economics created and developed by early twentieth-century economists such as Thorstein Veblen, John R. commons, and Wesley C. Mitchell."

It is not widely apprehended that the "institutional" standpoints articulated by Veblen, Mitchell, Commons, and Ayres are to a considerable extent incompatible, that is, based on quite different and possibly antithetical presumptions [see Ramstad 1989, 1994, 1995].

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