The Veblen-Commons Award: Robert L. Heilbroner

Article excerpt

It is both a personal joy and a professional honor to introduce Robert L. Heilbroner as the 1993 Veblen-Commons recipient. It has become traditional to begin the introduction of the current Veblen-Commons Award recipient by drawing linkages, intellectual or otherwise, with past recipients. For Robert Heilbroner, the most obvious and direct linkage would be with his teacher and mentor, the 1979 Veblen-Commons recipient Adolf Lowe. But there is another connection that, although it might be less than fully instrumental, is certainly more than ceremonial. I am referring to the New School for Social Research, an institution that once employed Thorstein Veblen as well as other important figures in the history of institutional economics. Adolf Lowe was a prominent figure at the New School, and his great influence is still felt. Robert Heilbroner is both a product of the New School and, as Norman Thomas Professor of Economics, one of the most important contributors to its legacy. (It is interesting to note that Robert Heilbroner defended his dissertation 17 years after he started his graduate studies and 11 years after he had completed his course work, convincing evidence that he was very much a New School student.) Although it might be inaccurate to speak of a New School branch of institutional economics, it would not be erroneous to note that common themes spring up in Veblen's, Lowe's, and Heilbroner's works: the importance of ideas, and preconceptions; the role of social institutions in shaping economic activity; the significance of social and historical context in understanding the economy; and a critical approach to neoclassical economic theory and its ideological underpinnings; these are all part of the hard core of institutional economics. It is for his distinguished accomplishments in clarifying and enlightening us, and the general public, on these issues that we come here today.

Last year at this luncheon, we heard the almost epochal life history of Ray Marshall, who came from a Lousiana orphanage, fought in World War II at the age of 15, and then continued to become Secretary of Labor. Although Ray Marshall's life might have Hollywood potential, from the perspective of a sociologist of knowledge, Ray Marshall's intellectual contributions are easy to understand and explain. As they say, he never forgot where he came from. Robert Heilbroner's history, at least on an intellectual level, is equally heroic, yet in a very different way. Born into, as he once put it, "the privileged class," educated in private schools and at Harvard, our recipient was eventually able to overcome the barriers of wealth and privilege to develop a fully humanistic and largely radical outlook.

After Harvard, there was a brief stint at the Office of Price Administration, a not so brief stretch in Army intelligence, and eventually the beginnings of a career as a business economist. …