Institutional economics as social criticism and political philosophy: remarks upon receipt of the Veblen-Commons Award.

Author:Tilman, Rick
Position:Column

Preliminary Remarks

I would like to thank the Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE) for the 2008 Veblen-Commons Award which you have just given me. I would also like to thank Dale Bush, Glen Atkinson, Bill Dugger and the Award Committee for their role in bestowing the award.

Most of the recipients of this award attribute inspiration to the founders and popularizers of institutional economics such as Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Clarence Ayres and John R. Commons. I am no exception since my intellectual pedigree includes all these men and C. Wright Mills, too. But to this list I would like to add the name of Lenny Bruce whose book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People had a great impact on me as you shall soon see.

Before I get to the more formal part of my address, however, I would like to put the following questions to the audience. You need not raise your hands in answer to these queries! But, ask yourselves, how would you answer these questions if they were put to you directly and you were under obligation to answer them candidly?

  1. How many of you voted for George Bush for President in either 2000 or 2004?

  2. How many are registered Republicans and consider yourselves to be politically conservative?

  3. How many of you attend church regularly and subscribe to either the Nicene or Apostles Creeds as a statement of your formal religious faith?

  4. How many of you engage regularly in conspicuous consumption, deliberate waste, or conspicuous abstinence from socially useful labor?

It is unnecessary to count heads and keep records on how each of you voted as we have reached consensus without cumbersome democratic procedures. Let me now summarize the consensus which clearly shows that you are not conservatives, do not vote Republican, are not religious and are leery of violating the Veblenian imperatives!

Evolutionary naturalism underlies the political theory and social criticism of institutionalism and binds together these and other facets of its paradigmatic cosmology. It is from this philosophic underpinning that we hope to make it into a more politically and ideologically coherent movement. Or do we; that is the question? Many organizations take strong pledges against oppression and subjugation and in favor of social justice. This means the repudiation of sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, ageism and ethnocentrism among others. This, of course, raises the question of to what extent, or if, professional organizations like AFEE, ITVA (International Thorstein Veblen Association), AFIT (Association for Institutional Thought), and EAPE (European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy) should take binding stands on philosophic, moral and public policy issues? Or is it preferable simply to take the articulation of a statement of principles loosely construed as adequate? Probably few of us would require political and ideological litmus tests for entry into our ranks. Yet through self-selection and institutional breeding, we have acquired a considerable degree of doctrinal unity past, present and likely into what Veblen calls the "calculable future."

Institutional economists have often attempted to project or at least to discover some kind of unity within our ranks. In their presidential or award addresses such as this, they often announce their findings. Policy coherence, political convergence, common tradition and even cosmological unity are said to exist among us. To these I would add political and moral obligation stemming from the social nature of human existence which obliges us to engage in altruistic activities as a matter of individual deportment. There is a large and apparently growing number of charitable and service organizations with secular political and ideological objectives scattered along the left-liberal end of the doctrinal spectrum that many of us support. These range from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the Red Cross, and the coalitions to restrict firearms, to Amnesty International, Human Rights Witness, Care and Planned Parenthood ad infinitum. As secular humanists we feel obligated morally and doctrinally to so act. Or at least that is the assumption upon which the more formal part of my address that follows rests.

Institutional Economics as Social Criticism and Political Philosophy

The social criticism and political philosophy of institutionalism has rarely been set forth systematically. (1) Nor have we been altogether candid as to where it leads as regards our sociopolitical activism. Admittedly, there is no ideological or political litmus test for admission into our ranks. Obviously, however, my view of what constitutes an "institutionalist" includes most of the members of AFEE, AFIT, ITVA and EAPE, and it is their commonalities I want to explore. I focus on what I take to be their perspective, which I do not think has been adequately or coherently summarized before in a sufficiently candid manner.

Institutional economists not only make certain philosophical assumptions, they also have related, but often unacknowledged, political and sociocultural objectives. These are outlined here and their doctrinal implications are explored. Evolutionary naturalism with its Darwinian and pragmatic roots, and its significance for a left-liberal politics aimed at the social engineering of a participatory democracy and a more egalitarian collectivism are delineated. Social reconstruction of a noninvidious and nonemulatory kind and the means for achieving it are suggested. The secular, instrumental knowledge necessary for the undermining of existing atavistic continuities such as corporate-commercial hegemony, nihilistic and anarchistic individualism, and religious conservatism is tentatively and provisionally advanced. In short, both the means and ends and the philosophic basis of institutionalism are articulated in an effort to encourage the emergence of a more publicly visible and self-conscious political posture.

Institutional economics is part of the progressive enrichment of evolutionary naturalism. Evolutionary naturalism is, of course, the philosophy of the American pragmatists John Dewey and George H. Mead; institutional economics is that of Thorstein Veblen, John R. Commons, and Clarence Ayres, among others. Understanding the connection between evolutionary naturalism and institutionalism requires an analysis of the genesis of both in Darwin and evolutionary biology as well as in Western philosophy and social thought. In order to lay bare the foundations of contemporary heterodox economics, I argue for a more explicit recognition of all this by institutionalists. This is done with the intent of pushing evolutionary economics in the direction of a more overt recognition of its own alignment with the doctrines of secular humanism and progressive political action.

Institutionalists as Evolutionary Naturalists

If there is a "metaparadigm" in most social science disciplines, and often there is, how could institutional economics be classified? Clearly it is a "subculture" of a larger community of inquiry. Also, because of its strong focus on value and valuation, it involves social criticism and political philosophy. As avowed evolutionary naturalists we espouse instrumentalism and a secular humanism as the underpinnings for a left-liberal political outlook. Plainly, we are not mere explorers of the social world because we favor certain kinds of social reform and cultural development. We aspire to use the knowledge we have acquired to shape society to achieve the "general welfare" to which we assign rather specific meaning. Moreover, as a political movement most of us are knowledgeable about our own intellectual pedigree and are able to refer to our ideational antecedents, an unusual feat for economists. This allows us to support social engineering of a collectivist nature without having to turn in our ACLU cards and abandon the defense of civil liberties.

We are interested observers, and sometimes perceptive critics, of both domestic and international affairs. But to most of us the human drama falls entirely within nature and the natural order of which we are a part. The generic uniformities and variations of nature converge with the shape and mold of any social order. There is no way to...

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