Charles Camic


On his book Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics

Cover Interview of June 23, 2021

In a nutshell

The book, Veblen, is about intellectual innovation, and how originality is shaped by the accumulation of schooling experiences. It examines a great American original, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a heterodox economist who became famous at the turn of the last century for his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here and in several companion works, many now neglected, Veblen exposed the defects of what we now call “mainstream economics” and proposed a bold alternative theory centered on problems of economic inequality which continue to haunt our own time.

My book examines the roots of Veblen’s ideas. This is a question scholars and others have written about since the time of Veblen’s death. With few exceptions, these accounts have offered a storyline that everyone is familiar with, whether or not they have ever heard of Thorstein Veblen.

I call this storyline the “outsider thesis.” It is the notion that creative individuals in nearly all walks of life enter the field where they will innovate from a place at the remote margins of the field or from entirely outside of it. This marginality gives them a creative edge over insiders, who are mired in the conventions of the field and cannot think outside the box. Yet that is precisely what innovators do; coming from the margins or the outside, they see things in a fresh light that enables them to discover new pathways beyond the imagination of insiders.

This outsider thesis is the centerpiece of previous explanations of Veblen’s originality. His interpreters portray him as the archetypal outsider, whose characteristics relegated him to the outer margins of the academic world where he spent his career. Among these alleged characteristics, scholars have especially emphasized Veblen’s impoverished upbringing on a farm of Norwegian immigrants, his late start speaking English, his sexual exploits, and his withdrawn personality.

Historical evidence strongly counters this narrative. Not only is every one of these descriptors simply wrong; my book refutes that whole notion of Veblen as an outsider. Archival documents, and other primary-source material I uncovered, demonstrate just the opposite. In the academic milieu where he was situated, Veblen was an insider par excellence.

Still further, my book shows that many of Veblen’s intellectual innovations actually derived from his position as an insider to the world of American higher education, which was undergoing major transformations at his time. These included the emergence of European-style research universities and the resulting rise of professional opportunities for young Americans who aspired to careers in one of the specialized academic disciplines then taking shape.

My book is the first to situate Veblen in this context and to demonstrate the connection between his later economic theorizing and his membership in the first homebred generation of American academics, who would build the modern university. In this building project, these young scholars were anticipated by their teachers, who had received advanced degrees in Europe and then carried back to the United States new ideas in philosophy, psychology, history, and economics (or “political economy,” as they called it).

This was the world inside which Veblen came of intellectual age in the 1880s and early 1890s. Beginning graduate study at John Hopkins University, Veblen earned a doctorate in philosophy at Yale University. Thereafter, he nearly earned a second doctorate in political economy at Cornell University, before his advisor departed to join the political economy department at the University of Chicago, where he also secured a faculty position for Veblen.

In my book, I follow Veblen’s educational path step by step. I demonstrate how his studies with a dozen different mentors accustomed him to a distinctive set of ideas about phenomena such as social evolution and social institutions. Because these ideas were continually reinforced by Veblen’s experiences as he moved across universities, disciplines, and mentors, they became second nature to him. As such, they provided tools he could adapt to the theoretical and practical problems he found when he turned to the agenda of contemporary economists.

Topping this agenda was the issue of wealth distribution, and the question of why some people receive larger shares of a nation’s wealth than others do. To this question, neoclassical economists of the time answered by asserting that people receive economic rewards in proportion to their productive contributions. To Veblen this theory was shot full of holes; and his writings upended it by creatively recrafting and repurposing the intellectual tools that his professors had previously plied in other contexts. According to Veblen’s theory, the individuals who receive the greatest economic rewards make no productive contributions, whereas productive men and women are continually bled dry by means of ever-changing parasitic institutions. In this far-reaching transposition of the lessons learned during his schooling lay Veblen’s originality.