and why should anyone care?
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
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
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
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
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
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
RETURN TO: Correcting the history
of Thorstein Veblen