The Making of a Relativist and Social Constructivist: Remarks upon Receiving the Veblen-Commons Award

Article excerpt

My major professor at the University of Wisconsin, Edwin Witte, occasionally remarked that all people like to be well thought of by their peers. So do I. That I now receive the Veblen-Commons Award of the Association for Evolutionary Economics obviously pleases me. I continue to be gratified by the support given me both during and since my editorship of the Journal of Economic Issues. I am particularly delighted to follow Robert Heilbroner in receiving the award; to be included in a small set with him and Harry Trebing, among others, is indeed an honor.

Institutionalism has meant to me several important ideas. These include:

1. A willingness to dissent and to proceed differently and perhaps alone. 2. An evolutionary and holistic conception of the economy. 3. A matter-of-fact, rather than a metaphysical, teleological, orthodox, and/or doctrinaire, approach to doing economics, while appreciating the socially constructed nature of putative facts. 4. The centrality of the problem of the organization and control of the economic system and therein the crucial importance of the human belief system, selective perception, hypocrisy, and the legal-economic nexus. 5. The recognition of the hermeneutic character of language and belief, including the importance of interpretation in contrast with absolutist claims of fact and truth. 6. Social constructivism and the importance of the complex processes of working things out. 7. The importance of institutions in generating economic performance, especially of legal institutions informing and channelling the operation of markets. 8. The serious limits of the neoclassical strategy of seeking to produce unique determinate optimum equilibrum solutions. 9. The importance of technology concerning substance, consequences, and interrelations with social structure and process.

In thinking about what to say on this occasion, I explored some of the origins of my beliefs as an institutional economist, particularly those acquired while in high school and as an undergraduate.(1) Several of my motivations and orientations can be traced to these early periods. These include the desire to do my own thing in my own way and to pursue an intellectual life and a repugnance for the mythological and often disingenuous absolutist formulations that characterize social control and much conventional and even otherwise sophisticated thought. They also include the relativism and social constructivism-perhaps the very essence of postmodemism-that has marked my work.

Although I find it exceedingly difficult to determine the precise origins of my ideas, several specific lessons and insights were learned in high school and undergraduate school. These lessons ultimately have to do with the philosophical foundations of my approach to the world in general and to institutional economics in particular.

Miami Beach Senior High School

My high school presented and indeed required a very scholarly program. This left me with an enchantment for the life of the intellect and an appreciation of knowing as a serious, stimulating, and rewarding activity. I had three years each of English, science, and math as well as a variety of other subjects such as history and civics.

I had a course in U.S. history given by Mrs. Lucy Robinson. To a selected group of students, she made available additional reading-in my case, a book by the noted historian, James Harvey Robinson (so far as I know, no relation to her). This had a profound impression on me, as it introduced me to the conceptual difference between "official" and "actual" or hidden" history, or between conventional and unconventional accounts; that is, it acquainted me with the possibility of multiple accounts and interpretations. The same events could be given different meanings, especially in the context of providing education as a means of socialization, which, of course, is what history teaching in K- 12 is largely about. History is a discipline of multiple stories. …