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Who was Thorstein Veblen?
and why should anyone care?

By Jonathan Larson ©1994

Thorstein Veblen was a political economist who lived from 1857-1929. Modern economics, which employs mathematical models to describe tiny fractions of overall human economic activity, shares little or nothing with the subject of Political Economy, which attempts to describe the ideas that create the larger picture. Modern economics is a profession for rigorously, but narrowly trained specialists. Political Economy is an occupation for the exceedingly curious generalist.

Some have claimed that Thorstein Veblen was the "last man to know everything"--an assertion even he would have disputed. But it is obvious that he certainly did his homework--his Ph. D. from Yale University was in Moral Philosophy (his doctoral thesis was on Immanuel Kant) and he spoke 25 languages while understanding history, literature, art, science, technology, devout observances, pedagogy, agriculture, labor relations, and industrial development at a near-expert or expert level.

Veblen wrote nine books--all of which are still in print--in addition to a massive outpouring of essays, book reviews, and magazine articles while teaching at The University of Chicago, Stanford University, The University of Missouri, and the New School for Social Research in New York. He even changed the English language--the phrase "conspicuous consumption" originally appeared as a chapter title in his first book.

This work, entitled "The Theory of the Leisure Class," (1899) catapulted Veblen from total obscurity into an heroic figure for the various progressive movements of early 20th-century America. Many tried to claim him as their spokesman. But Veblen had little stomach for politics or politicians--instead choosing to pursue the scholarly activity of finding things out.

Even though Veblen was a relentless critic of Gilded Age American capitalism, Veblen was never a Socialist. All attempts to recruit Veblen to a Marxist perspective failed utterly. Intellectually, Veblen was a true son of a pioneer--an independent thinker who was absolutely determined to be his own man. Veblen wanted to be Veblen. He would follow no one. His books are written virtually without footnotes.

Like jilted lovers, the Marxian intellectual community turned on him. They complained about one trivial matter or another but basically their criticisms could be lumped into the category of "Veblen is not one of us." And they were right--for Veblen wrote from the perspective of hard-working, but often prosperous, aspiring Midwestern middle classes. Veblen's sole recorded political act was the signing of a petition encouraging Robert La Follette, the Wisconsin politician who created the progressive wing of the Republican Party, to run for President in 1924. Odd as it may seem in 1990s America, Veblen addressed the issues most dear to the Midwestern Republicans of his day.

All of this explains the renewed interest in Veblen's writings. The ideas of Marx have failed, yet capitalism is not doing so well these days either. The most obvious manifestation of the failure of the two great ideologies is environmental ruin. Veblen's writings are especially appropriate to this issue because even though he never mentioned environmental problems directly, he devoted considerable space to decrying the chronic waste in industry. The man who ridiculed "conspicuous waste" has suddenly become the most relevant thinker of our age--a sane, middle-of-the-road alternative to the ideas that have caused the industrial assault on the planet.

The Lessons Learned from Rebuilding the Veblen Farmstead

Thorstein Veblen wanted no monuments built in his name. He found in his old age that self-styled intellectual followers misunderstood his writings even more than his critics. In a large bonfire, he burned his papers.

He had been dead less than five years when Joseph Dorfman, a professor at Columbia University, wrote a monumental biography that would justify his worst fears. The resulting biography is simultaneously admiring, disappointed, but mostly confusing. As this has come to be reckoned as the definitive biography on Veblen, his intellectual reputation has suffered a similar fate.

In his attempt to provide Veblen with suitable proletarian roots, Dorfman grossly distorted the material conditions of Veblen's life as a child of Norwegian pioneers in Minnesota. Dorfman sent a copy of the manuscript to Thorstein's brother Andrew who exploded in a barely-contained fury--writing three detailed letters describing the reality of the farm and life on the prairie. For whatever reason, Dorfman never changed his book.

Andrew Veblen's descriptions of the house have proved to be amazingly accurate down to the smallest details. Not surprisingly, these descriptions guided the restoration. Best of all, in an attempt to prove his case, Andrew sent Dorfman pictures of the house and barn taken in 1892. The evidence was found 100 years later at the Columbia University Library among Dorfman's papers.

Andrew may have failed to convince a biographer, but he had no trouble convincing the craftsmen who rebuilt the house. Everything was as Andrew described and every possible effort was used to make the restored house look exactly as it did in 1892.

The house tells an interesting story. Pioneer life for the Veblens was harsh and difficult by modern standards--the hard work never ended, the wind howled, it got brutally cold and swelteringly hot, there were swarms of biting bugs, wild animals, and a nearby woods where the children could get lost. Mere survival was an act of courage, determination, organization, and clever innovation.

Difficult as these conditions were, they were actually a lot easier than the conditions left behind in 19th century Norway where staving off starvation with bark bread was a recent memory. Take some Norwegians hardened by the struggle to survive the harshest environment successfully settled by humans, move them to the most fertile soils on earth, and those early settlers prospered beyond their wildest imaginings.

Thomas Veblen, (Thorstein's father) paid just $385 for 200 acres of grassland and 90 acres of woodlot in the Big Woods. In 1864, wheat paid over $1 per bushel. If Thomas planted only 80 acres in wheat and harvested only 25 bushels per acre (a conservative guess for virgin soil) his income would have been $2000 dollars at a time when $150 was the annual wage of the Valley Grove preacher. He could have paid for his farm over five times from the income of the first year.

Thomas was certainly not rich by the standards of the great American Eastern cities, but compared to where he came from, he was landed gentry. Owning 200 acres of prime agricultural land back in Norway would have made him one of the top 20 landowners in the country. His little mansion on the prairie was a monument to his hard-won status in the New World.

The Veblen house is not only a tribute to the ethic of hard work and craftsmanship of the successful pioneer, its sad deterioration by 1992 tells the rest of the story.

By 1873, the good times for farmers came to an end and conditions would only worsen for the next 20 years. In 1893, and old and tired Thomas would sell out for a mere $7500 for a large farm with a beautiful house and a spacious barn. Economic conditions for agriculture would have ups and downs but by 1974, a farm that had once sent nine children to college could now no longer support a family and the buildings were abandoned. Only its priceless historical value saved the house, because for someone who wants to make a living off the land today, 200 acres is a mere detail. One of the finest civil-war era farmhouses in Minnesota has become the story of the wealth created by farmers and what happens when that wealth leaves their hands.

Rebuilding the farmstead is, in the final analysis, more important than settling an old argument with a confused professor. It explains the origins of one of the unique geniuses of history. Thorstein Veblen helped build that farm and did not finally leave it until he was 34 years old. He saw how wealth was generated and how it was taken away. The farmers around Northfield made quick work of Jesse James--they were not nearly so successful at fending off those who would rob with a pen.

Veblen's great contribution to economic analysis is that he saw the difference between those who created wealth, and those who frittered it away. He taught that for a society to prosper, it must encourage the enterprise of the wealth creators while containing the cunning enterprise of those who fastened themselves on the backs of productive people through force and fraud for the sole purpose of getting something for nothing. Given his background, what else would he teach?

So even though Thorstein Veblen wished for no monuments, all concerned with the restoration believe that he would have approved of the farm's rehabilitation. Because in the end, the farm finally explains his intellectual roots by paying tribute to his mother and father, the real geniuses who planned and built tangible models for his vision. The farm may explain the writing of the son, but it is a monument to the parents who created the environment in which a great thinker could flourish.

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