Three questions to Malcolm Rutherford

Malcolm Rutherford is Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada. He is the world wide, universe wide, authority on the history of American Institutionalism. He is also one of my favorite historians of anything as he writes rigorous and engaging, archive based social history of ideas. (lots of attributes) I emailed him three questions.


1. Why is the history of American institutional economics interesting?

It is interesting for several reasons. It was (is) the most substantial and longest lasting non “orthodox” tradition in American economics. In terms of American academic economics, much more substantial than Marxism or historicism. Apart from its own intrinsic interest in its attempt to explicitly incorporate institutions in economics, it is interesting because: 1) its history tells us a vast amount about the way in which academic economics has evolved and changed in the US.; and 2) because its relative decline in the post World War II period tells us a lot about how and why neoclassical economics rose to ascendency.

2. What is the thing that scholars in HET get most wrong about the history of institutional economics?
A couple of things. Institutionalism is still over-identified with Veblen and with his attempt to build an evolutionary theory. Institutionalists such as Hoxie and Mitchell gave up on that aspect of Veblen’s thinking fairly quickly. What institutionalism as a movement was really about was an empirical view of science and the ideal of “social control.” When you look at the institutionalist literature in detail the rhetoric of “science” and “social control” is overwhelming. Science, for institutionalists, meant a critical investigation of the actual functioning of economic institutions. Social control meant finding methods to control economic activity to supplement the market. These methods could involve government regulation or planning, but could also involve novel forms of enterprise with different structures of incentives from the usual corporate form. Perhaps because of the over-identification with Veblen, it is still not properly appreciated just how “mainstream” institutional economics was in the 1920s and 30s, but institutionalists such as Mitchell and J. M. Clark were entirely a part of the establishment of economics.

3. What insights can we expect from your own and from others’ research in the near future?
Well, I can’t really speak for others, but I am working on a book that will pull together the past 12 or so years of my research on the institutionalist movement. It will be called “Science and Social Control: The Institutionalist Movement in American Economics, 1918-1945. Look for it at Amazon sometime next year!!

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6 thoughts on “Three questions to Malcolm Rutherford

  1. Nice new feature of the blog, Tiago. I hope we can do that kind of quick interview from time to time and Malcolm was a very good choice to start. One idea that I particularly like in this description of this “interwar pluralism” (I am borrowing from the influential HOPE supplement Rutherford co-edited) is that postwar neoclassical economics is built against institutionalism but at the same time is still inflected with it, that American Keynesianism for instance borrows as much from it as from actual British Keynesianism. That really helped me understand a lot of modern economics and this I teach to my students in my introductory economics class (and there is not a whole lot of recent HET that you can include in such a class!).

  2. this is indeed a welcome feature of your young and restless blog.

    however, it would be even better if us ‘readers’ could ask questions that the interviewed authority would then answer. otherwise it is not quite clear what this virtual discussion space might be for.

  3. I don’t feel like I added a feature, I sent an email to Malcolm. Any one of us can do the same to any number of colleagues that know a lot more than we do about a bunch of stuff.

    So it feels odd to collect questions and then email them to people we know so well. If what Simon (I am reading your book, Cook!) is suggesting is this kind of (BBC like) collective chatting with the author, where people log in to live chat with the author for a period of time in a Q&A, that might be more interesting but also hard to set up in the wordpress. It would be a great feature to promote books, but is maybe more than this blog can offer.

  4. Tiago, I was not suggesting anything so complex – just the thought that Malcolm Rutherford might be encouraged to check in to the comments here, and maybe engage in further discussion.

    By the way, I like the picture ‘Me and JB’ on Malcolm’s home page.

    Hope you are enjoying the Cook book.

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