The Economic Mind in America: Essays in the History of American Economics

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

12

MARSHALL, VEBLEN, AND THE SEARCH FOR AN EVOLUTIONARY ECONOMICS

Neil B. Niman

Neoclassical and institutional economics are often described as representing opposite ends of a broad spectrum of different “kinds” of economics. The conventional wisdom places Alfred Marshall firmly in the camp of the neoclassicals and Thorstein Veblen with the institutional economists. While the followers of each of these thinkers went on to develop independent schools of thought that have little, if anything, in common, closer examination of their work reveals a tremendous amount of commonality between these two historic figures.

Both Marshall and Veblen were grappling with the difficulties surrounding a desire to bring economics into the ranks of the “modern sciences.” In doing so, both were highly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer (Niman 1991; Edgell and Tilman 1989). But the similarities do not just end with a common set of influences, for both men to a greater (in the case of Veblen) and lesser (in the case of Marshall) degree attempted to create a framework suitable for capturing the characteristics of an “evolutionary economics.”

In trying to identify the similarities between two historic figures, there is a natural tendency to base a comparison on the contributions of each person. Unfortunately, Marshall, for the most part, only promises that he will develop an evolutionary economics and Veblen left behind nothing more than a montage of ideas. 1 While it would be easier to draw comparisons between two well-defined and fully articulated theoretical constructs, it is by no means an impossible task. Both men, prolific writers in their own right, have left behind enough clues that it becomes possible to identify a great deal of common ground.

Commonality between the ideas of Marshall and Veblen can be found in their shared criticism of the classical school, their belief that economics would be better served from an evolutionary approach, and a deep-rooted

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