Lewis Mumford and Institutional Economics

By Long, Stewart | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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Lewis Mumford and Institutional Economics


Long, Stewart, Journal of Economic Issues


Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was one of twentieth century America's most important heterodox scholars of technology, but his work is virtually unknown to most institutional economists today. (1) This is surprising, since Mumford's intellectual worldview owed much to Thorstein Veblen, and he has been referred to as "Veblen's greatest scholarly disciple" (Diggins 1978, 71). I believe this neglect stems from the fact that Mumford was neither an economist nor primarily a university professor. He was instead what Russell Jacoby, in The Last Intellectuals, described as an exemplar of "public intellectuals" who

lived their lives by way of books, reviews and journalism; they never or rarely taught in universities. They were superb essayists and graceful writers, easily writing for a larger public. They were also something more: iconoclasts, critics, polemicists, who deferred to no one. (1987, 17)

It is a sad irony that Mumford, who once complained that "the chief reason for Thorstein Veblen's neglect among (orthodox) economists was the fact that he was so much more than an economic theorist" (1931, 314), has suffered the same fate among modern institutional economists.

Mumford wrote twenty-eight books and more than a thousand articles, book chapters, book reviews, and miscellaneous other pieces. (2) From the 1920s to the 1970s, he was a major intellectual influence on the American public through his writings for a wide general audience. Despite not graduating from college, he wrote a regular column for The New Yorker magazine, won a National Book Award for nonfiction, received honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Rome, and served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. While never accepting a permanent academic appointment, he taught as a visiting professor at Harvard, M.I.T., Columbia, Stanford, Pennsylvania, and other universities.

Mumford is remembered today primarily as an urban planner, historian, and architectural critic whose major ideas can be found in books such as The Culture of Cities (1938), The City in History (1961), and The Highway and the City (1963). But his books that dealt more generally with issues of technology and culture defy easy compartmentalization and tend to have been forgotten. It is these latter writings that are most relevant to institutional economics.

Mumford's intellectual development, like that of C. E. Ayres, involved an elaboration and extension of ideas originating with Veblen. But unlike Ayres, Mumford rejected John Dewey's instrumental valuation and instead adopted an organic value theory inspired by pioneer ecologist Patrick Geddes (Marx 1990, Casillo 1992). Modern Veblenian institutionalism, despite calls for pluralism (e.g., Dugger 1995), is dominated by the ideas of Ayres. As Rick Tilman noted, "It is well established that Ayres systematically integrated Dewey's value theory and Veblen's economics... [and] to recapitulate the Ayresian fusion of the two is to substantially restate the intellectual history of evolutionary economics as well as the personal relationship of the two men after World War I" (1990, 963).

Mumford's attempt to integrate Veblen's theory of technological and institutional change with Geddes's organicism provides an interesting alternative to the Ayresian synthesis. Initially the Mumford synthesis (1934) was almost as optimistic as that of Ayres (1961, 1962) about the impact of technological advance. But the organic aspect of the Mumford synthesis led to his criticism of much post-World War II technological change as non-progressive and ecologically damaging (Mumford 1967, 1970). His explanation of the cultural impetus to non-progressive technological change is quite similar to the modern institutional concept of ceremonial encapsulation (Bush 1987, Waller 1987).

Although Mumford's analysis is not as well developed as Ayres', it may be more relevant to institutional analyses of problems associated with recent technological development.

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