John Rogers Commons Biography Theory

John Rogers Commons Biography and Theory

John R. Commons (1862-1945), five years younger than Veblen but twelve years older than Mitchell, was another heterodox economist from the midwestern United States. Born in Ohio and reared in Indiana, he attended Oberlin College and received the standard classical education of the time, which included a heavy dose of theology dispensed by professors who were quite often members of the clergy. He did graduate work in economics at Johns Hopkins, where he was strongly influenced by Richard T. Ely.

Because Ely had studied in Germany and had been influenced by the German historical school, political economy at Johns Hopkins included economics, political science, sociology, and history. Ely's interest in labor economics—he published Labor Movement in America in 1886, two years before Commons went to Johns Hopkins—was transmitted to his student, and Commons contributed to this area of economics throughout his career. Commons left Johns Hopkins after two years and taught at several places before finally following Ely to Wisconsin in 1904.

At the University of Wisconsin, an approach to economics, sometimes called the Wisconsin school, was developed, largely under the influence of Commons. This approach was important in sustaining economic heterodoxy in the United States and in initiating reforms that have changed the structure and functioning of the American economy. Until he came to Wisconsin, Commons had not been retained long at any university, possibly because of his political and economic views and possibly because he was not well received as a teacher of undergradu­ates. At Wisconsin, however, he found fertile soil for his visionary dissent and even received encouragement from progressive politicians who were eager to find academic experts willing to support social reform.

During his twenty-eight years at Wisconsin, until his retirement in 1932, Commons made significant contributions to economics in three broad areas: social reform, graduate education, and labor economics. Perhaps his most significant contribution was the social legislation he was instrumental in formu­lating. This legislation has changed the structure of the American economy. Commons's first book, Distribution of health (1893), was not well received. Critics found it an unsatisfactory attempt to establish a scientific basis for his socialist ideas. Yet Commons was not a revolutionary attempting to change the structure of a private-property, free-enterprise society. He believed that the es­sentials of capitalism could and should remain intact, but that changes in the working rules of the economic order were needed to remove the obvious faults of a laissez-faire economy. In Wisconsin he found support for his position from Governor La Follette.
During Commons's years at Wisconsin (1904-1932), a relationship developed between academics and politicians that was repeated on a national scale in the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, a relationship that has become commonplace today. The state government of Wisconsin made extensive use of the faculty at Madison as a brain trust for new ideas, as drafters of legislation, and as members of appointed commissions. A history of Commons's career at Wisconsin reveals that he spent a great deal of time helping to draft, pass, and implement social legislation.

In these efforts a discernible pattern developed. Commons would thoroughly study a problem, often with the help of his graduate students. He would then discuss the issues with those in the economy who would be influenced by any new legislation and get the support of the more progressive businesses or labor leaders. After the legislation was passed, he would travel and use other means to promote the spread of the new legislation to other states. There is little doubt that a number of ideas that took shape in the social legislation of the New Deal came from Wisconsin. And there is no question that many economists and others trained at Madison moved to Washington, D.C., in 1932.