Veblen, Camp, and the Industrial Organization of Agriculture

By Vaughn, Gerald F. | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Veblen, Camp, and the Industrial Organization of Agriculture


Vaughn, Gerald F., Journal of Economic Issues


William Roswell Camp (1873-1934) was among the few academicians to apply Veblenian economics to the industrial organization of agriculture. Camp was deeply devoted to Thorstein Veblen. When Veblen resigned from Stanford University in 1909, he left much of his personal library with Camp. Twenty years later, Camp served as a pallbearer at Veblen's funeral.

Joseph Dorfman, Veblen biographer and historian of economic thought, notes the significance of Camp's PhD dissertation treating the limitations of Ricardian rent theory. Dorfman laments that Camp "experienced great difficulties in adjusting to an academic career, and as a result the promise of his dissertation was dissipated in frustration and bitterness" (1949, 450). However, Camp's contributions to agricultural economics, derived from his dissertation, were not insubstantial. My article traces Veblen's influence on Camp's intellectual development, his dissertation, and his approach to agricultural economics while a professor at Lombard College, North Carolina State College, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Camp's relationship with Veblen began during his studies under Veblen at Stanford University from 1906 to 1909. Veblen had some acute insights into farming, as previously discussed in this journal (Vaughn 1999). These no doubt were instructive to Camp.

Robert L. Duffus and his brother William M. Duffus, who through Camp became acquainted with Veblen in 1907, commented on Camp as an undergraduate in their memoir The Innocents at Cedro: "He believed in economic determinism. He was a kindly, abstracted young man, and one of Thorstein Veblen's most ardent and intelligent disciples--possibly at that moment his only real disciple among Stanford undergraduates" (1944, 8). Robert L. Duffus also recalled that the last time he saw Veblen it was in company with Camp, in Berkeley, California, in 1927 (Duffus and Duffus 1944, 155-156; Duffus 1946, 464).

Interestingly, in replying to an Oberlin College questionnaire to former students, Camp described himself as a Stanford student in economic history (Camp 1908) rather than economics per se. This is another indication of how closely, even as an undergraduate, Camp identified with Veblen, who at Stanford was teaching Economic Factors in Civilization, History of Political Economy, and Socialism.

When Camp began his doctoral study at Stanford in the fall semester of 1909, the last semester before Veblen resigned, Camp apparently was Veblen's only graduate student or at least the only enrollee in Veblen's five-hour "thesis" course (Dorfman 1934, 274). Their many hours of discussion together that semester, one on one, must have been fascinating, probably to both men.

I say fascinating to both men because Camp came along when Veblen was intensely interested in the early relationship between the Scandinavian and Greek civilizations, and Camp furthered Veblen's interest. Veblen theorized that the institutional development of western Europe originated from Cretan excursions into the Baltic region. In early 1909, he began to seek funds for a large-scale research project to prove or disprove his theory (Dorfman 1973, 196).

According to Henry W. Rolfe, Stanford professor of Greek, in 1909 (presumably during his thesis course with Veblen) Camp proposed that he, Rolfe, and Veblen study Homeric society together. Quoting Rolfe from Dorfman's biography of Veblen: "Camp selected passages, came to me, listened to the suggestions that I made concerning them from the point of view of their literal meaning, went to Veblen and got his interpretations and comments, and brought them to me for further discussion." Camp and Veblen strongly felt that, in Rolfe's words, "the Homeric poems mirror a period when Minoan institutions had been broken up and new ones (of today's type) were beginning to form" (1934, 276). Camp's tentative dissertation title was "Economic Factors in the Overthrow of Pre-Homeric Civilization" (American Economic Association 1911, 216). …

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