Navigation – Plan du site
Economics as a Public Science, Part I: The Economist’s Ethos and Modes of Persuasion

Wisconsin Institutionalism, Public Persuasion, and Public Science

L’institutionnalisme du Wisconsin, la persuasion et la science publique
Marianne Johnson
p. 265-287


Cet article profite de la richesse des archives des institutionnalistes du Wisconsin pour étudier leur conception de l’économie comme science publique et comme outil de persuasion publique. Dans leur pratique de l’économie se manifeste un usage de la philosophie pragmatique avec un accent sur l’empirisme. Afin de comprendre la centralité de la méthode empirique – études de terrain, collecte et organisation de données, études de cas – pour ces auteurs institutionnalistes, il est nécessaire de reconnaître la spécificité du caractère empirique de leurs travaux. Les économistes du Wisconsin choisissaient leurs études en ayant déjà en tête des objectifs de réformes précis, et qui pouvaient prendre la forme de modifications réglementaires ou légales. C’est dans cette optique qu’ils s’intéressèrent à la « recherche constructive », une recherche conçue pour l’identification des problèmes et des potentielles solutions. Le fait que ces institutionnalistes aient généré des quantités importantes de documents, qui démontraient toujours les mêmes conclusions, indique que ces études constituaient un artefact de ce qu’ils voulaient réellement accomplir.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Prior to the 1940s, American economics was theoretically and methodologically diverse. Institutiona (...)
  • 2 Witte cataloged his fellow Wisconsin Institutionalists “among university professors … Harry Mills, (...)

1Wisconsin Institutionalism was always part political economy and part public persuasion.1 How they persuaded is a sweeping story that covers more than sixty years, from Richard T. Ely’s admonishment to “look and see, ask, listen and learn” (Morehouse, 1969, 18) to Edwin E. Witte’s dismay over economists who “think, talk, and write” but whose “participation and influence is quite limited” (1957, 2). Rising in concert with the Progressive movement, Wisconsin Institutionalism articulated an ambitious program of economic and social reform, underpinned by ‘the new economics.’ Defined by its empirical focus, pioneering statistical data collection, and the use of case studies and legal-historical analyses, Wisconsin Institutional economics “had a strong empirical bent, rating experience above abstract theory, favoring first-hand investigations and staring with the concrete, practical, important near-at-hand” (Groves, 1969a, 4). Wisconsin’s approach to economics was deeply intertwined with the ‘Wisconsin Idea’—the belief that university-produced knowledge should be used to solve problems and improve the lives of citizens of the state (McCarthy, 1912). An important feature was a close relationship between the university and the government. Wisconsin’s economists leveraged their expertise to enact legislation and regulatory policy. Though primarily associated with labor reforms, they also advocated for social welfare legislation, progressive tax reform, government land-use management, and public ownership of utilities. In this “the school was distinguished as much by its attitudes and methods of investigation as by its doctrine. It was imbued with a sense of moral purpose and aimed at improving the quality of American life” (Groves, 1969a, 4).2

  • 3 Ely published more than 324 articles, books, editorials, and book reviews; he left 198 boxes of arc (...)
  • 4 Data was desperately needed. For example, while working to improve living conditions in tenement ho (...)

2A particular feature of Institutionalism was the volume of research materials generated.3 The sheer quantity lead Ronald H. Coase to describe Institutionalism as “a mass of descriptive material waiting for a theory, or a fire” (1984, 230). Rather than Coase’s fire, I attempt to make sense of these materials as public science. Public science has two defining aspects. The first is that the research conducted amongst the public, sometimes called participatory action research. This manifested at Wisconsin in voluminous case studies, field researches, interviews, and onsite data gathering. The Institutionalists believed the laissez-faire approach that dominated economic theory and practice during the previous century had led to vast injustices. Yet, they had very little reliable evidence that could confirm convictions or guide reform.4 They responded by elevating practical problem solving as the central focus of economics study. Rather than be concerned “with the explanation of all economic phenomena,” they instead chose to focus on “the solution of particular economic problems of immediate significance” (Witte, 1954, 133). Wisconsin’s economists believed they were called to actively “do something toward directly the great forces shaping our lives, and directing them in such a way as to bring improvement” (Ely, 1938, 155-156). To do so, they engaged in “constructive research” that would contribute to “constructive democracy” (Commons, 1932). Within this public science framework, the “mass of descriptive material” can be understood as the scientific knowledge needed to motivate socioeconomic reforms.

3The second aspect of public science is outreach education. The Wisconsin economists understood the importance of this and devoted much energy to it. They believed the study of economics would improve the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process. Their work with Chautauqua, the University of Wisconsin Extension, labor unions, and civic groups, as well as their drafting of civil service and anti-corrupt practices laws, worked to empower the “average voter” (McCarthy, 1912, 100). The Wisconsin Institutionalists’ “mass of descriptive material” thus includes copious public lectures, syllabi and texts for workers schools, and curricula for extension programs. Combined with empirical research, the materials can be seen as an articulation of how social science should influence politics—knowledge leading to action, experts showing the way to the public. In this, science and persuasion were not wholly separate.

4In the next section, I consider how the philosophy of pragmatism and an emphasis on empiricism manifested in economics practice at Wisconsin. The ways in which empirical studies were used to stimulate legal and regulatory changes is considered in the following section. The remainder of the paper examines how the Wisconsin Institutionalists commingled public education and public persuasion to achieve their political goals and how this can be understood through their vision of economics as a public science.

1. Knowledge, Science, and Expert Authority

5Several masterful studies have documented the rise of Pragmatism and the preference for empirically validated knowledge at the end of the 19th century in the United States (Dorfman, 1969; Furner, 2001; Leonard, 2016; Ross, 1991). Influenced by Pragmatic thinkers such as Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, Institutionalists eschewed the natural laws of classical political economy and the deductive mathematics of neoclassical economics. Instead, they emphasized scientific investigation as the basis of logical reasoning combined with evaluation and re-evaluation of the consequences. Institutionalists such as Morris Copeland and Walton Hamilton emphasized that knowledge construction was a process; institutions and laws were changeable and indeed should be reconsidered and reformed as needed (Rutherford, 2011). Hamilton, in particular, placed enormous emphasis on problem solving and producing students who knew how to go about solving problems (Rutherford, 2011).

  • 5 Commons was the defining individual of Wisconsin’s Institutionalism. As the epicenter of the depart (...)
  • 6 The focus of this paper is understanding the volume of Wisconsin Institutionalist empirical work as (...)

6Wisconsin’s John R. Commons explained that it was not the case that “the individualistic philosophies and economics were untrue—they were [just] inadequate” for modern industrial society (1939, 32).5 Eschewing economic treatises in favor of practical evidence, the Wisconsin Institutionalists saw field reports, case studies, legal histories, and statistical summaries as constituting confident scientific knowledge (Mitchell, 1924; Samuels, 1991). Though Commons left more room for theory than other Wisconsin economists, his approach relied on facts to drive action: “theories are broken down into hypotheses for particular problems; the hypotheses are tested by experiments to see which of them best fits the facts. If all who investigate and are competent can verify the experiments, their agreement is a ‘science’ … science itself grows to fit the changes and discoveries in the facts” (Commons, 1939, 31).6 Institutionalists believed their approach to economics was therefore more scientific than that adopted by deductive economists (Clark, 1927, 221; 271).

  • 7 “To the young Wisconsin Institutionalist … a position in government likely seemed more exciting and (...)

7A legacy from the Progressives who venerated science as a mechanism to improve all aspects of human life, one particularly appealing aspect of Pragmatism was the belief that knowledge should be useful (Commons, 1939). For the Wisconsin economists, the starting point of analysis was the identification of a problem or problem situation. This was followed by investigation of the problem and the proposal of a solution—what they called “action research” (Raushenbush and Raushenbush, 1979). Both the initial investigation of the problem and the experience implementing the solution could produce additional knowledge that would lead to a refinement of either the solution or the understanding of the initial problem. Thus, both the ends and the means were subject to reappraisal as the result of the problem solving effort. This sort of thinking led Witte to conclude that Wisconsin Institutional economics was “not so much a connected body of economic thought as a method of approaching economic problems” (1954, 133). While the approach was not unique to Wisconsin, being widely shared by the different variants of Institutionalism, what differentiated Wisconsin was an emphasis on ‘scientific’ administration as a solution. Commons argued that “the pragmatic application” of the social sciences was “in the new field of Administration” (1939, 33). This “fourth branch of government” (ibid) could be more easily be adjusted than could legislation and may have been one reason so many Wisconsin-trained economists were attracted to administrative positions in government.7

  • 8 Ely’s clever phrasing of “look and see” has obscured the fact that many of the 19th century laissez (...)

8Institutionalists envisioned that expert administrative management, informed by scientific study, could improve living standards and create a more harmonious society than that which would arise under laissez-faire (Furner, 2011; Leonard, 2016). At Wisconsin, E. A. Ross (1916) invoked the idea of social engineers. Frederick Jackson Turner, a student of Ely’s from Johns Hopkins and his colleague at Wisconsin, similarly claimed “general experience and rule-of-thumb information are inadequate for the solution of the problems of a democracy … the very discoveries of science … have made it necessary to depend upon the expert” (in McCarthy, 1912, 125). The University of Wisconsin quickly became a leading center in the training of such experts. Ely joined the faculty in 1892 as the head of the School of Economics, Political Science, and History; his hiring of Commons in 1904 and Ross in 1906 launched the Institutionalist era. Wisconsin maintained a position of national importance through the 1940s, operating the fourth largest doctoral program in the country, emphasizing pragmatic action research.8

  • 9 “Ely made sure that the students at Wisconsin were exposed to exactly the opposite type of training (...)
  • 10 In Lampman (1993), see Balthasar Meyer’s Railway Legislation in Wisconsin (1897), Albert Jenks’ Wil (...)

9“Look and see” first manifested in Ely’s Tuesday-night round table for graduate students, where he encouraged them to take up historical and investigative studies rather than theoretical subjects (Ely, 1923, 12).9 “While we appreciate the work of former economists … [we] look not so much to speculation as to the historical and statistical study of actual conditions of economic life” claimed Ely (1909, 49). Wisconsin’s faculty thus sought to train experts who had “been tried the laboratory of public life;” they required the “study of actual problems rather than study of theory” (McCarthy, 1912, 189). Doctoral dissertations from the early Wisconsin period reflect this focus on fact-finding as did course work.10

10As early as 1901, the department offered courses where “the statistical method will be applied to the treatment of selected economic and social problems … Students are required to do a thorough piece of statistical investigation” (University of Wisconsin Bulletin, 1903-1904, 105). A course in field work appeared in the curriculum from 1902 to 1905; beginning in 1921, the topic was offered regularly as Technique of Field Investigation. More generally, field work was embedded throughout the curriculum, reflecting the departmental belief that “continuous study, followed by field work, yields the best results” (University of Wisconsin Course Bulletin, 1903-1904, 107-108). Current events and popular social movements were seen as fundamentally important to the study of economics at Wisconsin. Academic economists were expected to take a stand on contemporary issues, addressing policy and practice in the classroom and in public (Kiekhofer et al., 1935). “Theories that do not influence action” were considered “arid and useless cerebration” (Arthur Altmeyer Papers, 7 May 1954, Box 10).

  • 11 In Lampman (1993), see Frederick Deibler’s Amalgamated Wood-Workers International Union (1909), Tho (...)

11The earliest Wisconsin economists were preachers who believed that experts should not only instruct on how to achieve society’s goals, but on what the goals should be. Experts possessed the “divine spark” of science, and therefore were uniquely loyal and incorruptible (Ross, 1916). These Progressives cum proto-Institutionalists claimed not only scientific knowledge, but scientific virtue. This shifted in the years following the First World War. The religious drive paled and was replaced by a more conventionally technocratic conception of the economic expert. This can be seen as Ely’s Round Table gave way to Commons’ Friday Nighters. The emphasis remained on pragmatic, investigative work. Commons “had all of his graduate students work on some aspects of these [labor] problems … [and] inspired work on the practical questions” (Witte, 1954, 131). Even through the tenure of Witte in the 1950s, graduate training centered on “a thesis devoted to a practical public policy problem” (1954, 140). Field work was a common component of dissertation research; the process was highly empirical, “collection, classification, and interpretation of the facts” (Furner, 2011, 14).11 The emphasis on field work grounded in the historical and contextual evolution of institutions sometimes meant that Wisconsin economists were sometimes loath to generalize. New situations required new data to correctly formulate ameliorative policy; this contributed to the volume of empirical work generated.

  • 12 This is the tension that Furner (2001) identified between advocacy and objectivity, or between econ (...)

12Wisconsin’s action research frequently combined field work and social reform.12 Commons argued that unlike natural scientists, “economic and social scientists cannot be disinterested” (1939, 2). Helen Page Bates, Irene Osgood Andrews, Jean Scobie Davis, and Theresa Schmid McMahon worked in settlement houses where the data collected was used to argue for social reform, and the inhabitants trained to advocate for change. Harold Groves’ work with education unions and Don Lescohier’s efforts organizing stove workers were undertaken with similar goals. Selig Perlman (1928) maintained that the only way to make progress in labor reform was to understand the psychology of the laborer; this could only happen through field research and personal interaction. For Perlman, the expert “educated non-manualists” were “most useful when investigating specific subjects, which have definite and calculable bearings upon the workers’ welfare” (1928, 280).

13To understand why the empirical method was so important to the Wisconsin Institutionalists requires recognizing that their work was empirical in a very specific way. The Wisconsin economists chose their studies with definite reform goals in mind—reforms that could be achieved either through regulatory changes or by a change of law. Commons’ constructive or action research was specifically designed to identify problems and potential solutions. “We must bend our energies as directly as possible toward such studies and investigations as will bring about the changes in laws and enforcement that are obviously needed” (O. R. Lovejoy to H. Sumner, 18 July 1911, Helen Sumner Woodbury Papers, Box 2, Folder 11). Commons distinguished this action research from academic research which sought truths but had no concern for practical application and from journalistic research which identified problems but did not consider solutions (Chasse, 2017, 135). That the Wisconsin Institutionalists generated substantial amounts of materials that repeatedly demonstrated the same findings was thus an artifact of what they wanted to accomplish.

2. Institutions of Change

2.1. Regulatory Administration

  • 13 See Commons (1939, 38) on why experts should not be elected by popular vote.

14The Wisconsin economists were elitists rather than social radicals. “The equality of men is a chimera” Ely argued; only a few have “extraordinary capacities” as experts for socio-political leadership (1886, 97).13 These “Christ-like men” with their “all-encompassing love for humanity” had a duty to educate and care for “those beneath them in their intellectual, ethical, and social natures” (Ely, 1886, 161). This required that the state actively work to correct injustices: “the position of the strong and the weak must be equalized by a powerful state intervention” (McCarthy, 1912, 46). The necessity of state intervention carried over into the Commons’ era, though the motivation shifted from the sectarian to the bureaucratic. For Commons, the solution lay in “‘Administration’ … the meeting place of social philosophy and the collective action that distinguishes present-day economics from the nineteenth century abstract philosophies” (1939, 38). Regulatory agencies and commissions staffed by experts provided a way to rectify the injustices that arose under laissez-faire. Commons referred to this as “the fourth branch of government … an investigational branch … [whose] investigations are not the mere search for truth, they are designed to improve the conditions within the field” (1939, 38). For, as Commons claimed, “administration is investigation” (Commons and Andrews, 1916, 416).

15The success of Commons’ Industrial Commission of Wisconsin (ICW) provided a roadmap for state and national administrative reform. Prior to 1911, various state agencies had existed to oversee Wisconsin’s labor laws, but enforcement was inconsistent and many aspects of working conditions went uncovered. Under Commons’ leadership, the ICW became the dominant labor relations institution in the state, its frequent interventions informed by extensive scientific studies. Empirical research, often undertaken by Commons’ students, lead to worker safety regulations, limited working hours for women and children, and the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The ICW served as the basis of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, which was well staffed with Wisconsin economists throughout its first decade. Later, as American politics became more conservative, regulatory administration was used to protect Progressive reforms.

16Wisconsin-trained economists were disproportionately represented at all levels of government (Biddle, 1998; Johnson, 2018; Rutherford, 2011), as the Wisconsin Institutional method was well-suited to the day-to-day work of government economists. Many of the economists who trained at Wisconsin started their careers as government researchers, hired based on their field work experience. Katharine Lenroot and Emma Lundberg oversaw extensive surveys of the juvenile court system for the Children’s Bureau. Lundberg’s Public Aid to Mothers with Dependent Children (1928) collected data on women and children enrolled various government programs. Her study laid the ground work for the Social Security Administration’s provision of cash benefits to children. Florence Peterson wrote the definitive history of strikes in the United States, chronicling more than 80 separate incidences for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1938); her study established the BLS policy on strikes during the subsequent decade.

17Field research was considered particularly persuasive because “most of the work they [policy makers] do makes little use of abstract economic theory” (Witte, 1954, 138). The Institutionalists’ government reports often included copious tables summarizing quantitative data gathered through various types of field research. “Scorecards” of questions, along with training and the use of consistent instructions helped to reduce the discretionary influence of field agents (e.g., Commons, 1908). Standardization and uniformity lent the impression of objectivity. From such surveys, statistical measures were generated which helped “to understand the most important economic relations—the relative importance of the parts in making up the whole” (Commons, 1970, 188). Meta studies collated ‘typical’ activities and/or categorized findings by ‘type.’ Economic policies were therefore to be based on “accurate observation and reasoning from observed facts” (Witte, 1957, 12).

18The Wisconsin economists were “studying facts, not for their own sake, but to solve problems and to make this a better world to live in” (Witte, 1954, 132). This was achieved by strategically pursuing regulatory changes at the state and federal levels. Roughly half of Groves’ archives are devoted to expert reports and testimony for government agencies, including commissions on the health needs of the nation, rural schools, teacher federations, regional accounts, and environmental conservation. Also included are reports for the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Secretary of State. Nearly all of Altmeyer’s archival boxes contain government reports, speeches, testimony, data, case studies, proposals, and actuarial reports; the same is true for the Sumner Woodbury and Glaser papers. Government work also constitutes substantial portions of the Ely, Commons, Witte, and Lescohier papers, a reminder that much of the empirical research produced by Wisconsin economists was meant to achieve specific regulatory outcomes.

2.2. Change of Laws

19Ely’s vision for a documentary history of labor began with the premise that laws must adapt to historical circumstance and hence were changeable. Studies by Ely, Commons, and their students suggested that new laws, changes in laws, or changes in the court interpretation of laws were more effective strategies to achieve labor reform than radical unionization. Legal changes and legislative amelioration of social ills were fundamental to the Wisconsin Institutionalist reform efforts, epitomizing Commons’ constructive research and the Institutional emphasis on working from within the system. Wisconsin’s Institutionalists placed great value on studying law and jurisprudence as a way to anticipate and precipitate social change. “In many of his historical studies and in all of his reformist campaigns, Commons had to consider what the judges decided or what they would decide under given circumstances. The study of legal precedents became as much his business as the making of economic analyses” (Mitchell, 1924, 240).

20One powerful tool developed and deployed by the Institutionalists was the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, a forerunner of the Congressional Research Service. Operating in part as a research library, the bureau also assisted with drafting legislation, working to improve both the speed and quality of proposals. A partnership between the bureau’s chief, Charles McCarthy, Commons, and the Progressive Governor, Robert LaFollette, produced Wisconsin’s Civil Service Law (1906) and the Public Utilities Act (1907). Additional legislative reforms included workers’ compensation, limits to the working hours of women and children, minimum wages, and the first modern apprenticeship law. Groves, Raushenbush and Brandeis Raushenbush wrote the nation’s first unemployment insurance program, the Wisconsin Unemployment Reserves Act (1934), with help from the bureau. Numerous Wisconsin graduate students in economics, history, and political science worked for the bureau, including Groves, Brandeis Raushenbush, Selig Perlman, David Saposs, Peter Speek, and Witte. The bureau’s bill drafting service produced so many legislative items, that they were accused of being a ‘bill factory’ for the Progressive Party. Bureau alumni also contributed significant pieces of national legislation; perhaps most notable, Witte crafted the Social Security Act and Lundberg added the child welfare provisions.

  • 14 See Raushenbush and Brandeis Raushenbush (1979, 15), the Theresa Schmid McMahon Papers (Box 1, Fold (...)

21Some of the Wisconsin Institutionalists took the study of legal reform a step further, requiring their students to conduct research specifically in support of new legislation and to testify at local or state hearings. Brandeis Raushenbush required students to “attend hearings and legislative sessions and follow the progress of bills dealing with labor issues.” Schmid McMahon and Lenroot did as well.14 Groves wrote “I early had hit upon the idea of undergraduate papers featuring field work and a geographic orientation. The favorite subject was ‘the tax problem in my home town’” (1969b, 146). Courses in Commercial Law and Labor Legislation and Administration were offered regularly as part of the Wisconsin Economics Department curriculum from 1903 onward; in political science, McCarthy taught courses on practical bill drafting and the theory and practice of legislation (Rutherford, 2011).

  • 15 Much of this practical thinking on legal change of law was reconceived by Commons in his theoretica (...)

22Commons and John Andrews’ Principles of Labor Legislation (1916 and four subsequent editions) best captured the Wisconsin Institutional approach to reform through legislation. The book was “undoubtedly the most notable work upon its subject;” it seriously “analyzed innumerable laws and their working and compared them with their counterparts abroad” (Foerster, 1916, 566). A textbook in the study of writing and enacting labor legislation, the book exemplified the action-research paradigm of the Wisconsin Institutionalists. Developed from their work for Ely’s American Bureau of Industrial Relations (ABIR) and its labor histories, the book was reviewed by all the major economics journals, becoming “the American standard” (Montgomery, 1928, 746). Despite repeated accolades for its comprehensive listings of labor laws many reviewers were critical of its “meagre” treatment of the theoretical “principles of labor legislation” (McCabe, 1916, 411). The last chapter of the book illustrates how its purpose was not theoretical, but constructive. The book reflected the Wisconsin view that “administration” included “investigating, drafting, and adopting enforceable laws,” sorting and determining facts, and “getting and keeping competent officials” (Commons and Andrews, 1916, 416). Commons and Andrews argued that investigation of the facts was the cornerstone of the democratic functioning of government (ibid); legislatures and the courts should accept such data and follow the recommendations of experts (McCabe, 1916, 412).15 Much like Wisconsin’s work on administration, contributions to legislative reform propagated voluminous investigative researches.

3. Public Education and Public Persuasion

  • 16 Ely helped found the AEA in 1885. Commons served as president in 1918 and Witte in 1956.

23The Wisconsin Institutionalists were nationally renowned economists. They regularly presented papers and participated in discussions at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association (AEA).16 Prior to 1940, the department ranked seventh, nationally, for publications in leading journals (Backhouse, 1998). They held important positions at the National Bureau of Economic Research and on governmental commissions. Much of this activity was designed to influence their peers and high-ranking government officials. It also credential their legal testimony and their outreach to the public. Their effectiveness persuading politicians has been well considered (Johnson, 2018; Kaufman, 1993; Rutherford, 2011). The focus here is on how their volume of work can be understood to have influenced the public. Wisconsin Institutionalists segmented the public into various groups as a way of facilitating their reform program through a combination of education and persuasion. Considered in turn are the strategies employed to reach the educated public, the general population, the working classes, and ‘inferior’ groups.

3.1. The Thinking Public

  • 17 King wrote to Sumner Woodbury: “I am anxious to get out a volume that will place before the thinkin (...)
  • 18 While it is likely that the thinking public also read academic journal articles published by the Wi (...)

24The Wisconsin Institutionalists used their position as academic experts to convince the “thinking public” of the necessity of a broad range of regulatory and legal reforms.17 They targeted this public primarily through textbooks and other academic publications.18 The writings evidence their belief that data, histories, and field work were persuasive: “something more than abstract economic theory be included in our economics courses in colleges” (Witte, 1954, 139). Ely’s An Introduction to Political Economy (1889) “probably outsold all competitors combined until well into the thirties” (Rader, 1966, 160). The book was popular for its “lucid style, graphic illustrations, and sympathies for the underprivileged” (ibid). Initially prepared for use in the Chautauqua Summer School, the text was not exclusively targeted at college students but was intended to reach the broader intelligent public. Similarly, Commons and Andrews’ Principles of Labor Legislation (1916) was “intended partly for the citizen” (Foerster, 1916, 567), as well as “for college students and the general reader” (McCabe, 1916, 411). Ely’s Outlines of Economics (1893; revised Ely, Adams, Lorenz, and Young, 1908 and subsequent editions) sold upward of one million copies and was used by more than 250 colleges and universities. Arguing for social reform over socialism, the textbook reflected Ely’s historicist, proto-institutional approach with chapters on the “Evolution of Economic Society” and the “Economic Development of the United States.” The book also offered a typically Institutionalist “collection and critical examination of statistics” (Ely, 1893, v). As such, “Outlines continued to embody the most progressive views of any text in the field” (Dorfman, 1969, 256-257).

25The most popular labor textbook during this period was Labor Problems (1905) by Wisconsin’s T.S. Adams and Helen Sumner, going through nine editions by 1920. An “excellent textbook,” it covered women and child labor, immigration, poverty, unemployment, strikes, cooperatives, and labor laws (Cummings, 1906, 396) and did much to advance the Wisconsin Institutionalist position on labor reform. Florence Peterson provided an updated version in her Survey of Labor Economics (1947). By “historically and descriptively” treating the institutions of labor, the book was an “outstanding success” (Kirkaldy, 1948, 200). The historical approach of Martin Glaeser’s Outlines of Public Utility Economics (1927) “reveals at all points the author’s broad experience” outside the classroom and “deals with the more recent trends in public policies;” the most “distinctly original feature of the book” was its case study of Milwaukee (Armstrong, 1928, 121-123). Harold Groves’ Financing Government (1939) was “progressive” (Arant, 1939, 625); it “was an institutionalist’s study [that] became the top seller in the field and went through six editions” (Groves, 1969b, 14), though dense with tables of data and case studies.

  • 19 “I recognized this as good counsel [from Cornell President Andrew D. White], and I followed it. Som (...)
  • 20 Irwin Collier’s Economics in the Rear-view Mirror webiste. Available at : http://www.irwincollier.c (...)

26Beyond textbooks, the Wisconsin Institutionalists were sensitive to what the intelligent public would willingly consume. Early in his career, Ely embraced rapid and frequent publishing, believing “it is a fatal mistake to wait too long” (in Dorfman, 1941, 280).19 His approach became the modus operandi of the Wisconsin economists. Commons knew that the “nineteen volumes of the Industrial Commission’s hearings could never be read by the people at large. What was needed was a one-volume resume of the testimony of witnesses” (1963, 79). Ely served as general editor for a series of Macmillan social science textbooks as well as for their Citizens Library, the latter designed to provide “information on topics of importance to every citizen.”20

27The character of the writers and the management of the Library will be such as to inspire confidence. The utmost pains will be taken to secure the greatest possible accuracy in all statistical tables and statements of fact and theory, and no partisan bias will disturb the conclusions. It is the conviction of the Editor that scientific work in the field of the humanities may generally be made interesting to intelligent citizens. (Ely, 1900, ix-xi)

28Ely’s ABIR viewed its labor histories as another way to influence contemporary labor debates. “A true history, such as we hope to write, will disclose the lines of constructive effort and encourage movement along these lines” (Ely, 1904, 12). And Commons promised in the introduction to A Documentary History of American Industrial Society that “an accurate and precise knowledge will help forward the better forces” (1910, 31).

3.2. The Broader Public

29The expert’s responsibility to public education is a reoccurring theme in the work of the Wisconsin Institutionalists. To meet their obligation, they employed a variety of public education programs designed to influence a much wider audience than the elite intellectuals or intelligent citizens associated with the universities. The Wisconsin economists maintained voluminous correspondences. The Wisconsin Historical Society archives are replete with requests for reports and data and contain the detailed responses provided. “In almost every major American city and hundreds of smaller ones, Ely corresponded with reform-minded citizens. He presented the arguments favoring municipal ownership and, perhaps more important, the facts and figures from the experience of other cities” (Rader, 1966, 90).

30The belief that facts and educational materials would persuade the population to accept reforms manifested in various types Institutionalist projects. If people properly understood the nature and scope of problems, then “vital public education … [would] render rapid progress in social and other important legislation possible” (H. Sumner to J. King, 24 October 1914, Sumner Woodbury Papers, Box 3, Folder 4). As such, Sumner Woodbury contributed to legislation to fund the publication and distribution of campaign bulletins by state governments. While the ostensible purpose of the bulletins was educational, she also thought they would facilitate reform legislation.

31It will mean a public and impartial channel of communication, uninfluenced by the forces which control the privately owned press, and by bringing an adequate presentation of the issues to be decided by the ballot directly to the attention of each voter, will not only vastly improve representative government, but will render possible and practical a great extension of direct legislation, national as well as state (H. Sumner to J. King, 24 October 1914, Sumner Papers, Box 3, Folder 4).

32Additional efforts included editorial writing for popular publications such as the New Republic or the New Review (e.g., Sumner Papers Correspondence, Box 2, Folders 12-14). Public education was often conflated with public persuasion, as the Institutionalists attempted to gain support for specific policies. For example, in 1934, Groves relied on his bill co-authors, Brandeis Raushenbush and Raushenbush, to organize the public hearings and town hall meetings necessary to generate public support for the Wisconsin Unemployment Reserves Act (Groves, 1969b, 122). The next year, Witte relied on public hearings and “much explaining and much patience” to sell the Social Security Act (Perkins in Witte, 1962, ix).

33The Wisconsin Institutionalists spoke at churches, student clubs, union meetings, lodges, and women’s clubs with the deliberate goal of persuading the public to support and effect change. Morehouse (1969, 16-17) lauded Ely as “unique in the extent to which he went off-campus for public, university extension programs, or Chautauqua lecturing.” Commons gave hundreds of public lectures, most designed to educate and persuade the public on labor problems, social insurance, and health reforms (J.R. Commons Papers, Box 13, Folders 5 and 6). Witte evinced the same commitment to public education. He “thoroughly enjoyed lecturing and was willing to talk ‘to everyone everywhere;’” he accepted nearly every opportunity to meet with people simply “because they asked me” (in Lampman, 1962, xvii).

3.3. Working Classes

34Labor education predated Institutionalism at Wisconsin, arriving with Ely and his Social Gospelism. Progressive economists like Ely had embraced a responsibility to organize labor. For them, the education of the working class provided both moral conditioning and a mechanism for social control. “Unions can be organized by right-thinking individuals who, by using persuasion, will inspire individual workers to improve their ethical behavior” (Ely in Kapuria-Foreman and McCann, 2012, 505). The stated goal was “Christian civilization” and the “full and harmonious development in each individual of all human faculties” (Ely, 1886, 3). The unstated goal was social stability and gradual change as a remedy to the revolutionary and anarchical approaches of the more militant labor unions. It was incumbent on laborers and their leaders to improve “character, to practice temperance, to eschew politics, to reject violence, to work within the law, and to refrain from demands for equality” (Kapuria-Foreman and McCann, 2012, 508). The last was not trivial, but rather was an essential feature of Ely’s elitism.

35Commons and Selig Perlman divorced the religious motivation from Ely’s labor theory, replacing the moral reformer with expert intellectuals who would “direct the manual workers away from the strict and narrow interest of wage-earners as a class, and to lead them towards affiliation with other classes” (Commons, 1918, 19). In this, the Wisconsin Institutionalists saw themselves as the intellectual leaders of the working classes—not in the mold of labor intellectuals, but rather as academic intellectuals, informed by research and data (Commons, 1963, 87-88).

36Under Commons’ leadership, the University of Wisconsin offered a variety of adult education programs. The most notable was the University of Wisconsin Extension and within that, the School for Workers. The worker schools were designed to both educate workers in fundamentals and foster a working knowledge of labor laws and worker rights. The first program was a school for ‘working girls,’ a six-week summer program for factory workers beginning in 1926 with the collaboration of the YWCA. The original curriculum included courses in economics, history, physical education, and health. Men were admitted in 1928, at which time the objectives and functions of the school underwent rapid change. More utilitarian courses were developed, including those specific to collective bargaining and labor-management relations, designed to equip workers with the tools necessary to incite and support reform. Field study synopses, union and shop histories, and statistical summaries informed much of the curriculum (D. Lescohier Papers, Box 1; see also Bauder, 1929). Students studied their unions and factories and produced reports. As the program evolved, special sessions were added to train union managers and empower unions as institutions for social change (Schwarztrauber, 1950).

3.4. The Defective, the Criminal, and the Pauper Classes

37Wisconsin Institutional economics as a public science embraced “the use of belief … for purposes of social control, to either retain or change institutional arrangements and practices” (Samuels, 1991, 51). As Leonard writes of the Progressives-later Institutionalists generally—and which was certainly true of the Wisconsin Institutionalists—they “saw the poor as victims in need of uplift but also as threats requiring social control” (2009, 109). Ross (1991) viewed immigrant education as a means to instill control over the new, diverse populations; education could substitute for the control that had been previously provided by homogeneity of religion in the United States. Commons advocated for the Americanization and assimilation of immigrants through educational programs. A worker should not be “taught only their mere trade but also some essentials which will prepare him for life and a place in the civic body” (McCarthy, 1912, 143). Numerous units on Americanization were offered as part of the University of Wisconsin’s summer school for workers throughout its history (Schwarztrauber, 1950). In all, the Wisconsin Institutionalists believed that “government has an over-riding responsibility to promote the general welfare … democratic government must control anti-social conduct and affirmatively promote social action” (A. Altmeyer Papers, 7 May 1954, Box 10).

  • 21 From lists of doctoral dissertations in progress from the American Economic Review: Caroline MacGil (...)

38Yet, significant illiberal and discriminatory views were institutionalized in course work at the University of Wisconsin well through the 1920s. Commons’ Races and Immigrants in America (1907) and Ross (1901) illuminate the extent of prejudices. These works strikes the modern reader as at odds with the institutional emphasis on education, outreach, and social reform. However, it is important to note that bigotry does not preclude the possibility of interacting, even amicably, with individuals of despised groups. And though Commons’ work was full of negative stereotypes, he regards nearly all as being ultimately capable of adopting ‘American’ ideals and of being assimilated into American life. The Wisconsin Institutionalists also evidenced varying degrees of intersectionality, as race, ethnicity and gender created overlapping subgroups of different statuses among the researchers and the publics. Perlman, for example, wrote of Yellow Hordes despite being discriminated against as a Jewish immigrant. Sumner Woodbury accused women of undercutting the wages of men and of strike breaking. Schmid McMahon argued for lower minimum wages for women on the basis of the “family wage.” Nearly half of the proposed dissertations by women during the Commons’ era were at the intersection of eugenics and social policy.21 Many were based on field work and direct interaction with the relevant populations. This fit well with action research that demanded measurement and empirics and lent the label of scientific to the subsequent eugenic, social, and labor reform proposals. Field work and interaction were therefore a necessity. Through 1929, Economics remained combined with Sociology and had significant overlap with social work, thus promulgating research related to social biology, degeneracy and criminality. However, eugenic ideas dropped out of the Wisconsin program fairly quickly after the retirement of Commons in 1932.

39Leonard (2016) makes apparent the extent to which eugenic beliefs and racism permeated the academy in the United States before the Second World War. The appeal of eugenics to the Wisconsin Institutionalists shared much with the appeal of empirical research generally: it conformed to their view of modern science, it assumed a prominent role for government activism, it relied on experts, and it necessarily called for new social legislation. The Wisconsin Institutionalists segmentation of the public into intelligent citizens, the working and immigrant classes, and delinquent classes for the purposes of education and social control illustrates the extent to which Institutionalism operated as a program of public persuasion as well as a public science.

4. Conclusions

40The story of Wisconsin Institutionalism as public science reflected the sweeping changes in social science theory and practice from the 1890s through the Second World War. This paper makes use of the wealth of materials left by Wisconsin Institutionalists to consider how they thought about economics as public science and public persuasion. I argue that the volume of research materials generated by the Wisconsin Institutionalists reflected a desire for confident, scientific knowledge to underpin their program reform. Influenced by Pragmatism, their work was necessarily empirical because it was meant to be constructive—it was research designed to identify specific problems and suggest specific regulatory or legislative solutions. It was public because the research was conducted within the community they hoped to serve; research included case studies of individual firms, unions, schools, and city offices as well as survey data, field researches, and interviews. The “mass of descriptive material” that irked Coase (1984) was thus an inescapable by-product of what the Wisconsin Institutionalists wanted to accomplish.

41The Wisconsin Idea demanded that science should be used to improve the lives of the people of the state, and Wisconsin’s economists embraced the mandate. Indeed, the “studious economist and statistician,” informed by research and study, was obligated to address injustices, improve the conditions of the laboring poor (Commons, 1963, 87-88). With such high stakes, the Wisconsin economists did not stint at employing economics as persuasion to convince intellectuals, government officials and politicians, the working classes, and inferior populations of the necessity of reforms. They therefore produced and disseminated vast quantities of data, case studies, and histories to inform legal and regulatory changes. They provided policy advice and copious public commentary. They developed extension and outreach programs, bringing scholarly and practical knowledge directly to the people. Of course, this could mean delivering to citizens what they wanted and lacked. But, it could also mean giving citizens what the experts think they should want. Thus despite the publicness of their science was in tension with their view that the extremely complex problems of government could not be left solely to the people. A government of experts was need to provide guidance, to educate and to persuade the public to the best course of action (Van Hise, 1913, 473).

I would like to thank Tim Leonard, Steven Medema, Harro Maas, three anonymous referees and the participants of the Œconomia workshop for helpful comments and suggestions.

Haut de page


Adams, Thomas S. and Helen Sumner. 1905. Labor Problems: A Textbook. New York: MacMillan & Co. Ltd.

Altmeyer, Arthur J. 1904-1973. Arthur J. Altmeyer Papers. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Arant, Roscoe. 1939. Financing Government by Harold M. Groves (review). American Economic Review, 29(3): 624-626.

Armstrong, F. E. 1928. Outlines of Public Utility Economics by Martin G. Glaeser (review). American Economic Review, 18(1): 121-123.

Backhouse, Roger. 1998. The Transformation of U.S. Economics, 1920-1960, Viewed Through a Survey of Journal Articles. History of Political Economy, 30(annual suppl.): 85-107.

Bauder, Russell. 1929. Economics: A Text for the Wisconsin Summer School for Workers in Industry. Madison: Netherwood.

Biddle, Jeff. 1998. Institutional Economics: A Case of Reproductive Failure? History of Political Economy, 30(5): 108-133.

Chasse, John D. 2017. A Worker’s Economist: John R. Commons and His Legacy from Progressivism to the War on Poverty. New York: Transaction Publishers.

Clark, John M. 1927. “Recent Developments in Economics.” In E. C. Hayes (ed.), Recent Developments in the Social Sciences, 213-306. Philadelphia: Lippencott.

Coase, Ronald. 1984. The New Institutional Economics. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 140(March): 299-231.

Collier, Irwin. Economics in the Rear-view Mirror (website). Available at:

Commons, John R. 1907. Races and Immigrants in America. London: Macmillan.

Commons, John R. 1908. Standardization of Housing Investigations. Publications of the American Statistical Association, 11(84): 319-326.

Commons, John. R. 1910. A Documentary History of American Industrial Society. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark.

Commons, John R. 1918. Introduction. In John R. Commons, et al., History of Labor in the United States, Volume 1. New York: Macmillan.

Commons, John R. 1924. The Legal Foundations of Capitalism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Commons, John R. 1939. Twentieth Century Economics. Journal of Social Philosophy, 5(1): 29-41.

Commons, John R. 1963. Myself: The Autobiography of John R. Commons. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Commons, John R. 1970 [1950]. The Economics of Collective Action. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Commons, John. R. 1832-2005. John R. Commons Papers. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Commons, John R. and John B. Andrews. 1916. Principles of Labor Legislation. New York: Harper.

Cummings, John. 1906. Labor Problems: A Textbook by Thomas Sewall Adams and Helen Sumner (review). Journal of Political Economy, 14(6): 396-399.

Dorfman, Joseph. 1941. The Seligman Correspondence II. Political Science Quarterly, 56(2): 270-286.

Dorfman, Joseph. 1969. The Economic Mind in American Civilization, 1865-1918, Vol. III. New York: Augustus M. Kelley.

Ely, Richard T. 1886. The Labor Movement in America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.

Ely, Richard T. 1889. An Introduction to Political Economy. New York: Chautauqua Press.

Ely, Richard T. 1893. Outlines of Economics. New York: Hunt and Eaton.

Ely, Richard T. 1900. Monopolies and Trusts. New York: Macmillan.

Ely, Richard T. 1904. Professor John R. Commons and the Proposed Investigations in the History of Industrial Democracy in the United States. The Commons, April: 5-12.

Ely, Richard T. 1909. The American Economic Association 1885-1909. American Economic Association Quarterly, 11(1): 47-111.

Ely, Richard T. 1923. Conservation and Economic Theory. In Richard T. Ely et al., Foundations of National Prosperity: Studies in Conservation of Permanent National Resources. New York: Macmillan, 1-91.

Ely, Richard T. 1812-1963. Richard T. Ely Papers. Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.

Ely, Richard T. 1938. Ground Under Our Feet: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan.

Ely, Richard T., T. S. Adams, Max Lorenz, and Allyn Young. 1917 [1908]. Outlines of Economics. New York: Macmillan.

Furner, Mary. 2011. Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905. New Brunswick: Transaction.

Glaeser, Martin. 1927. Outlines of Public Utilities. New York: Macmillan.

Groves, Harold. 1969a. Richard T. Ely: An Appreciation. Land Economics, 45(1): 1-9.

Groves, Harold. 1969b. In And Out of the Ivory Tower. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Johnson, Marianne. 2018. Daughters of Commons: Wisconsin Women and Institutionalism. In Kirsten Madden and Robert W. Dimand (eds), The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s economic Thought. London: Routledge.

Kapuria-Foreman, Vibha and Charles R. McCann. 2012. An Appreciation of Selig Perlman’s A Theory of the Labor Movement. History of Political Economy, 44(5): 505-540.

Kiekhofer, William H., John Ise, Frederic B. Garver, Harry D. Gideonse, Walter E. Spahr, Frank H. Knight, Ernest H. Hahne, Vernon A. Mund, Hiram L. Jome, John R. Commons, and Harlan L. McCracken. 1935. The New Deal and the Teaching of Economics. American Economic Review, 25(1): 9-12.

Kirkaldy, H. S. 1948. Survey of Labor Economics by Florence Peterson (review). Economic Journal, 58(230): 260-262.

Lampman, Robert. 1962. Social Security Perspectives: Essays by Edwin E. Witte. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lampman, Robert. 1993. Economists at Wisconsin: 1892-1992. Madison: The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Lenroot, Katherine F. 1909-1974. Katherine F. Lenroot Papers, Archival Collections, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries. Available at:

Leonard, Thomas C. 2016. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. New Haven: Princeton University Press.

Lescohier, Donald. 1921-1969. Don D. Lescohier Papers. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Lescohier, Donald. 1960. My Story for the First Seventy-Seven Years. Madison: Art Branch Creations.

Lundberg, Emma. 1928. Public Aid to Mothers with Dependent Children, Extent and Fundamental Principles. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Maas, Harro and Mary S. Morgan. 2012. Observation and Observing in Economics. History of Political Economy, 44(5): 1-24.

McCabe, D. A. 1916. Principles of Labor Legislation by John R. Commons and John B. Andrews (review). American Political Science Review, 10(2): 411-412.

McCarthy, Charles. 1912. The Wisconsin Idea. New York: Macmillan.

McMahon, Theresa S. 1889-1960. Theresa Schmid McMahon Papers. Special Collections, University of Washington.

Mitchell, Wesley C. 1924. Commons on the Legal Foundations of Capitalism. American Economic Review, 14(2): 240-253.

Montgomery, Royal. 1928. Principles of Labor Legislation by John R. Commons and John B. Andrews (review). Journal of Political Economy, 36(6): 746.

Morehouse, Edward. 1969. Richard T. Ely: A Supplement. Land Economics, 45(1): 10-18.

Perlman, Mark. 1958. Labor Union Theories in America. Evanston: Row, Peterson and Co.

Perlman, Selig. 1928. A Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Macmillan.

Peterson, Florence. 1938. Strikes in the United States, 1880-1936. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Peterson, Florence. 1947. Survey of Labor Economics. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Rader, Benjamin. 1966. The Academic Mind and Reform: The Influence of Richard T. Ely in American Life. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Raushenbush, Paul and Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush. Our ‘UC’ Story. Columbia University Archives, Oral History Project.

Ross, Dorothy. 1991. The Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ross, Edward A. 1901. The Causes of Race Superiority. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 18(1): 67-89.

Ross, Edward A. 1916. Conscience of the Expert. School and Society, 3: 522-524.

Ross, Edward A. 1936. Seventy Years of It: An Autobiography of Edward Alsworth Ross. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.

Rutherford, Malcolm. 2011. The Institutionalist Movement in American Economics, 1918-1947. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Samuels, Warren J. 1991. ‘Truth’ and ‘Discourse’ in the Social Construction of Economic Reality: An Essay on the Relation of Knowledge to Socioeconomic Policy. Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 13(4): 511-524.

Schwarztrauber, Ernest. 1950. University of Wisconsin School for Workers. ILR Review, 3(4): 542-547.

Sumner, Helen. 1896-1933. Helen Sumner (Woodbury) Papers. Wisconsin Historical Society.

University of Wisconsin Course Bulletins. 1890-1930. Madison: University of Wisconsin.

Van Hise, Charles. 1913. Address by the President of the University of Wisconsin. City Club of Pennsylvania Bulletin, 6(20): 469-475.

Witte, Edwin. 1954. Institutional Economics as Seen by an Institutional Economist. Southern Economic Review, 21(3): 131-140.

Witte, Edwin. 1957. Economics and Public Policy. American Economic Review, 47(1): 1-21.

Witte, Edwin. 1963. The Development of the Society Security Act. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Haut de page


1 Prior to the 1940s, American economics was theoretically and methodologically diverse. Institutionalism constituted one important approach, with variations centered at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin, as well as that which was associated with Thorstein Veblen but locationally disperse. Institutionalism generally has been characterized by (1) emphasis on institutions and institutional change, (2) rejection of utility maximization in favor of social psychology, (3) empiricism, (4) emphasis on social control, and (5) rejection of traditional theories of value and efficiency (Rutherford, 2011). Though Institutionalism was only so named in 1918, there is enough similarity in method and approach to include Ely and those at Wisconsin during the Progressive era and 1910s as proto-Institutionalists. John R. Commons, who would undoubtedly qualify as an Institutionalist, arrived at Wisconsin in 1904.

2 Witte cataloged his fellow Wisconsin Institutionalists “among university professors … Harry Mills, Ira Cross, Theresa McMahon, Willian Haber, Ellison Chambers, Selig Perlman, Don Lescohier, Elizabeth Brandeis, Kenneth Parsons, and Harold Groves … of those whose careers were mainly in the public service Arthur Altmeyer, William Leiserson, Katharine Lenroot, Ewan Clague, Paul Raushenbush, Maud Swett, and Meredith Givens.” A third generation included Theodore W. Schultz, Walter Heller, Warren J. Samuels, C. Lloyd Francis, John Gronouski, and Robert Lampman (Witte, in Lampman, 1993, 116). One should add Wisconsin faculty Thomas S. Adams and Martin Glaeser and students John B. Andrews, Irene Osgood Andrews, J. Roy Blough, Florence Peterson, and Helen Sumner Woodbury to the list. Historians Charles McCarthy and Frederick Jackson Turner and sociologist E. A. Ross also made substantial contributions. Not everyone who trained or taught at Wisconsin should be classified as an Institutionalist; exceptions include Charles Bullock, Balthasar Meyer, Allyn Young, Max Lorenz, Ethel Dietrich, and Alvin Hansen.

3 Ely published more than 324 articles, books, editorials, and book reviews; he left 198 boxes of archival documents to the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). Groves left 48 boxes; Witte left 276 boxes. Altmeyer deposited 36 boxes, and Commons 17 boxes. Nearly all of the economists listed in the previous footnote left ten or more boxes. Documents include government reports, case studies, field research reports, journals, notebooks and histories as well as speeches, editorials, journal articles, and correspondence. Ely (1938), Commons (1963), Groves (1969b), Lescohier (1960), McMahon (undated; in Theresa Schmid McMahon Papers), Ross (1936), and Witte (1963) wrote autobiographies. Because of the volume of materials, the approach taken here is necessarily prosopographic.

4 Data was desperately needed. For example, while working to improve living conditions in tenement housing through minimum regulatory standards, Commons bemoaned the lack of “any authentic standards of food and prices, housing and rents, that would disprove [erroneous] claims” (1908, 319).

5 Commons was the defining individual of Wisconsin’s Institutionalism. As the epicenter of the department for nearly thirty years, he oversaw an expansive research agenda and orchestrated nation-wide political advocacy. While Commons is perhaps best remembered for his theoretical work, at the time he was an active social reformer and nearly all of his students worked on empirical problems. His empirical bona fide and his commitment to the study of legal precedents cannot be doubted. He was however distinct from other Wisconsin Institutionalists in that he “cherished a deep interest in, a certain reverence for” economic theorizing. “No economic system was complete in his eyes until it is tied into a system of concepts related organically to the reinterpreted concepts of the theorists;” this combination of practical study and theory made Commons “a bewildering person” (Mitchell, 1924, 240).

6 The focus of this paper is understanding the volume of Wisconsin Institutionalist empirical work as public science. Therefore no consideration is given to Commons’ theoretical work (e.g. Commons, 1912), which had little contemporary influence. Wesley C. Mitchell argued that even Commons’ theories had to be understood in the context of a “historian, reformer, teacher turns theorist” (1924, 240).

7 “To the young Wisconsin Institutionalist … a position in government likely seemed more exciting and important than it would have seemed to a graduate student trained in a more orthodox program” (Biddle, 1998, 113-114). This was particularly true for Wisconsin’s women economists. Katherine Lenroot was Chief of the Children’s Bureau, and Helen Witmer was the Director of its Division of Research. Elizabeth Paschal was the first female division chief at the Social Security Administration. Florence Peterson was the director of industrial relations at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gertrude Schmidt Weiss served at the Department of Labor along with Ruth Scandrett, who was their senior industrial economist. Wisconsin economists also had a high profile at the U.S. Department of Labor, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Social Security Administration as well as at the Industrial Commission of Wisconsin (Johnson, 2018).

8 Ely’s clever phrasing of “look and see” has obscured the fact that many of the 19th century laissez-faire economists also engaged in data collection and statistical study (Maas and Morgan, 2012). The extent of empirical analysis among different schools of economic thought does not obviate the uniqueness of the Wisconsin approach; for this group the collecting and recording process was fundamental to theory and practice, not ancillary or expository.

9 “Ely made sure that the students at Wisconsin were exposed to exactly the opposite type of training [of students at the University of Chicago]. By building a staff of former students loyal to his discipleship … he could be certain that the instruction at the school was of a reformist type” (Lampman, 1993, 53). “Institutional economists have always been very much concerned with the discovery and presentation of facts. Institutionalists have a great regard for statistics and field studies … Institutional economists have relied far more on direct observations than model building” (Witte, 1954, 135).

10 In Lampman (1993), see Balthasar Meyer’s Railway Legislation in Wisconsin (1897), Albert Jenks’ Wild Rice Gathers of the Upper Lakes (1899), George Ray Wicker’s Financial History of the New York Colony (1900), B. H. Hibbard’s History of Agriculture in Dane County (1902), Raymond Phelan’s Financial History of Wisconsin (1906), and Benjamin Rastall’s Labor History of the Cripple Creek District (1906).

11 In Lampman (1993), see Frederick Deibler’s Amalgamated Wood-Workers International Union (1909), Thomas Crafer’s The Administration of Public Poor Relief in Wisconsin and Minnesota (1910), Alex Johnson’s Unemployment in Milwaukee During 1908-1909 (1912), Alonzo Cox’s The Milltown Agricultural Community, Polk County, Wisconsin (1920), Hirim Jome’s Radio Industry (1925), Harold Groves’ Machinist in Industry: A Study of His Craft (1927), Edward Morehouse’s Study of the Rochester Clothing Market, 1919-1922 (1927), and Arthur Altmeyer’s Industrial Commission of Wisconsin: A Case Study (1931).

12 This is the tension that Furner (2001) identified between advocacy and objectivity, or between economists crusading activism and the necessity of scientific, professional standing.

13 See Commons (1939, 38) on why experts should not be elected by popular vote.

14 See Raushenbush and Brandeis Raushenbush (1979, 15), the Theresa Schmid McMahon Papers (Box 1, Folder 1) and the Biographical Note of the Katharine Lenroot Papers.

15 Much of this practical thinking on legal change of law was reconceived by Commons in his theoretical Legal Foundations of Capitalism (1924).

16 Ely helped found the AEA in 1885. Commons served as president in 1918 and Witte in 1956.

17 King wrote to Sumner Woodbury: “I am anxious to get out a volume that will place before the thinking public of this country the very best facts and thoughts in the solution of labor problems” (L. King to H. Sumner, 11 Sept. 1916, Sumner Papers, Box 2, Folder 14).

18 While it is likely that the thinking public also read academic journal articles published by the Wisconsin Institutionalists—e.g. especially those in the legal profession—these are less transparent in their efforts to identify a specific audience to persuade and do not fit the goal of “public science” as cleanly.

19 “I recognized this as good counsel [from Cornell President Andrew D. White], and I followed it. Some may say that I followed it too unreservedly, but, at any rate, I transformed my various ideas into numerous books and articles. They have been criticized, and justly so … But I believe that in writing them I have served, even if in small measure, as a clarifying influence on economic thought” (Ely, 1938, 59).

20 Irwin Collier’s Economics in the Rear-view Mirror webiste. Available at :

21 From lists of doctoral dissertations in progress from the American Economic Review: Caroline MacGill on Unpaid Services (1910), Roberta Pritchard on Heredity in Relation to the Control of Defectives (1910), Rhonda White on Morality of the City Population (1910), Emma Lundberg on Personal Inefficiency as Related to Family and Social Conditions (1911), Roberta Hodgson on Types and Traits of Negros of Athens, Georgia (1911), and Katharine Lumpkin on Social Situations and Girl Delinquency (1928). While a handful of topics chosen by men during this period reflect eugenic views, these are nowhere near as prominent. See Johnson (2018) for more details.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Marianne Johnson, « Wisconsin Institutionalism, Public Persuasion, and Public Science », Œconomia, 9-2 | 2019, 265-287.

Référence électronique

Marianne Johnson, « Wisconsin Institutionalism, Public Persuasion, and Public Science », Œconomia [En ligne], 9-2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 18 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/oeconomia.5437

Haut de page


Marianne Johnson

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh,

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Association Œconomia
  • Logo CNRS
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals