You are here: ET-home > Historical context > Correcting the history about Thorstein Bunde Veblen > A Prophet Without Honor
Elegant Technology
ET homeCurrent insightsElegant Technology definedHistorical contextAbout the authorend

 

 

A Prophet Without Honor

Jonathan Larson (1993)

"A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house." Mark 6:4


As this is written, an example of this ancient Biblical truth has been demonstrated on the eastern edge of Rice County. After many false starts, skilled craftsmen have restored the boyhood home of arguably the greatest writer/ philosopher/ economist who ever grew up in Minnesota.

Thorstein Veblen's reputation is truly global years after his death in 1929. The International Thorstein Veblen Association headed by scholars from as far away as the University of Rome first met in February 1994 at the New School for Social Research in New York--an institution Veblen helped found.

In 1976, the British Broadcasting Company aired a series hosted by John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard University on the subject of political economics which included scenes from the Rice County farm. In much of the English-speaking world, the BBC is the final authority on matters of fact. As a result, Veblen's reputation roughly tracks Galbraith's high opinion of his work in many parts of the globe.

Veblen's most famous work "The Theory of the Leisure Class" has been in continuous publication since it first appeared in 1899 and most of his other books can be found in libraries throughout the planet. A school of economists called institutionalists meet regularly and publish monthly the Journal of Economic Issues.

Thorstein Veblen is not some obscure figure in the history of American intellectual thought. Rather, he is considered to be the only original political economist to have ever come from the USA.

So the questions must be asked, Why is it that most folks in his home state of Minnesota have never heard of Veblen? Why was the Veblen homestead allowed to deteriorate so badly? Why did it take a Harvard economist to secure national historical designation for the farm? Why did not the relevant state or county historical societies preserve this national treasure? Most embarrassingly, why was it that it took an economist raised and educated in Texas to finally step forward and spend the money necessary to save the Veblen farmstead?

The quotation from Mark's gospel answers many of these questions for it seems as if Veblen's reputation is inversely proportional to the distance from the farm. The average Rice County or Minnesota citizen can be forgiven for not believing that an intellectual of such reputation grew from roots they share. It is a manifestation of the state's modesty or inferiority complex.

And yet, Minnesotans are not without heroes. Charles Lindbergh and Sinclair Lewis, for example, are both honored with historical restorations and have had their Minnesota childhoods glorified even though both lived lives of controversy. Those perennial losers, the Twins, won a World Series and then won another to prove the first one was not a fluke. Minnesota hockey was responsible for what most consider to be the greatest athletic upset of all time--The Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in the 1980 Olympics.

So if Minnesotans honor controversial writers and historical figures and know that world-class performance is possible, how is it that Veblen's obscurity is almost total in his home state? There are many theories for why this is so--none very flattering.

1) Intellectuals are not heroes. The Sinclair Lewis interpretive center is largely a fluke. Other than Lewis or possibly F. Scott Fitzgerald, Minnesotans do not glorify great genius. Such anti-intellectualism is not fertile soil for the appreciation of Veblen's highly complex and difficult writings.

2) The relevant historical societies had other agendas that took precedence. The Rice County and Northfield Historical Societies were too small and underfunded to take on such a specialized task. The Minnesota Historical Society has been busy with the restoration of Fort Snelling and the building of an expensive new headquarters so even though it funded many useless studies into the restoration of the Veblen farm, actual funds for reconstruction were never found.

3) The most logical candidate for restoration has always been Carleton College. Thorstein Veblen was one of the school's earliest graduates--in fact, nine of the Veblen children attended there. He is easily the most reknown intellectual ever to attend Carleton--a student with once-in-a-century gifts. For many years, the school actually owned the property and the fact there is anything to save at all is a tribute to Ruthmary Penick, the college library archivist for twenty-five years.

If any person or institution should be interested in glorifying intellectual activity, it must certainly be a college--especially one of Carleton's intellectual pretensions. Moreover, Carleton's refusal or unwillingness to follow through with the restoration cannot be explained by an inability to pay for it is a well-endowed and very rich school.

Even if one grants that colleges are not in the business of old-house restoration and there are always other claimants for money in the budget, Carleton's behavior in this matter borders on the bizarre. They have told William Melton, the IDS economist who bankrolled the restoration, that they were not interested in the farmsite--EVEN WHEN IT WAS FULLY REBUILT.

The most rational conclusion is that Carleton College actually wishes to disown its greatest graduate. Ruthmary Penick claims that for years, every time she brought of up the matter of the restoration, Charles Miel, Carleton' president during much of her efforts, would mutter something about Veblen's reputation as a womanizer. Suddenly, the story gets VERY interesting.

The idea that Carleton would turn on an intellectual for a few very mild and totally unproved rumors of sexual indiscretions is not credible. Veblen's biography retells some juicy stories but in truth, the current American President probably had more lovers his first weekend at Oxford than Veblen had in a lifetime.

Most phony excuses are related to the real story and there is no reason to believe this is not the case here. Making a big deal out of small matters of sexual conduct is a primary manifestation of Puritanism. Carleton was founded by Puritan missionaries from New England. The cover story that Veblen offended Carleton's Puritan schoolmasters over matters of sex hides the real issue that Veblen's writings are an offense to basic Calvinist doctrine. Strange as it may sound, Carleton College is willing to disown its greatest intellectual product because he was a religious heretic!

Calvinist doctrine is historically suited to producing wealthy societies in that it glorifies education, hard work, commerce, and most importantly, banking. The Puritan impulse began in Geneva Switzerland and spread to England before migrating to Massachusetts. Harvard and Yale were founded as Puritan seminaries while Carleton College takes pride in being very much like them. Veblen not only graduated from Carleton, he received his Ph. D. in moral philosophy from Yale. His training in the religious traditions of the oldest and most established group in the United States was the finest his family could afford.

Seven years of Puritan education did not turn Veblen into a Puritan. Importantly, Thorstein's parents were Norwegian immigrants and were nominally Lutheran--the other dominant strain of Protestant thought. His father was not especially religious so Thorstein was not exposed to fanatical tendencies as a child. While Thorstein never questioned the Puritan emphasis on education and thrift--doctrines shared by Lutherans and Calvinists alike--he grew to question many other Puritan assumptions.

While the Puritan descendants naturally choose to highlight their legacy of fine schools and the prosperity brought to us by Yankee ingenuity, Puritanism has a dark and ugly side. This is a doctrine that produced witch-burners in Salem, organized the importation of slaves, and produced the rationalization for the wholesale slaughter and dispossession of the Native Americans.

Of Puritanism's doctrines, the most controversial and often perverted is called predestination. The theology of predestination starts out innocently and almost logically from the proposition that God is all-knowing. If God is all-knowing, then it is logical to assume that even before a person is born, God knows what sort of life he or she will lead--whether good or bad. So even before a person is born, God knows whether that person will eventually join him in heaven.

If the doctrine stopped there, it would be harmless and no one would ever object to anyone holding such a belief. But predestination's logic becomes twisted into the assumption that because God knows who will join him in heaven, he will bless that person during his or her life on earth. The people on their way to heaven all called the "elect." Even on earth, people are divided into the "elect" and the rest of us. This produces a two-tiered society of insiders and outsiders.

Predestination's logic now becomes offensive to outsiders because Puritans believe it is possible to know if one is among the "elect" while still on earth. The best way people can know if they are among the "elect" is if God blesses them with prosperity. Therefore, if a person is rich, that person is probably one of the "elect" no matter how one came to be rich. For the theologically disinclined, the whole subject is shortened to "Rich equals good: Poor equals bad."

The effects of predestination theology are still daily manifest in American society. The crimes of the rich are not treated as criminal acts. For example, a poor person who robs a bank through the front door will net a few thousand dollars and if caught, receive an average jail sentence of 17 years. On the other hand, white-collar criminals just looted the Savings and Loan industry for hundreds of billions of dollars through the back door and almost none went to jail.

Shortly before Veblen arrived at Yale, a professor by the name of Graham Sumner cobbled together a "scientific" rationale for the most odious assumptions of predestination called Social Darwinism. This was a significant addition to the basic theology because now outsiders were forced to agree that the rich and powerful were merely a manifestation of the rule of "the survival of the fittest," no matter what one thought of the concepts of predestination and the "elect."

Social Darwinism was immediately seized as justification for the actions of Gilded Age robber barons. Any attempt to regulate or tax the rich was now seen as a crime against nature and evolutionary progress.

Veblen had Sumner for a professor but while Thorstein was influenced by the evolutionary argument, as an outsider he found it difficult to believe in the validity of predestination and its corollary, Social Darwinism. For if he did, he must also believe he was damned. His father was an honest, mildly prosperous, incredibly hardworking, and accomplished immigrant farmer from the prairies of Minnesota, but he was clearly not a member of the "elect." Thorstein at Yale redefined the destitute student.

From Yale, Veblen returned to the farm to live while he searched for a job to go with his newly-minted Ph. D. in philosophy. The country was in a period of great agricultural hardship as farm incomes from the production of commodities was cut nearly in half from 1873-1893. Worse, Veblen's Yale degree got him no serious job offers so from 1884 to 1891, he was a glorified farm hand in a declining economy.

Poppa Veblen was an ingenious farmer with a side-trade of carpentry. He had become rich enough to pay off the farm and send nine children to a private college. But bent from a lifetime of hard labor, he was ready to throw in the towel. Thorstein went back to school in search of a degree that would ensure employment while the farm was sold in 1893 for the pitiful sum of $7500.

Those years on a Rice County farm turned Veblen against Social Darwinism and transformed him from a moral philosopher into a political economist. In an age when the rich of America were redefining decadence, fresh air, hard work, an educated mind, plenty of reading material, tempestuous political turmoil, and the observations of a community struggling to survive, combined to shatter any illusions Veblen may have had about the teachings of the barely-disguised Puritan seminaries that had educated him.

During his farmhand sabbatical, Veblen began to seriously date the niece of the Reverand James W. Strong, the first president of Carleton College. When the relationship became serious, he was told he was not a proper suitor because he did not have English ancestors. For a Norwegian, being called inferior by a Brit is much like being called smelly by a hog. He gave his tormentors a brief history lesson on how England was nothing but a Viking colony and that all the British upper classes were the descendants of Viking invaders. Pointing out that the Normans (Northmen) were Norwegian settlers led by the fierce Viking chieftan Gange Rolfe settled the issue for his fiance, Ellen Rolfe; although this "social climbing" was his "original sin" in the minds of the Carleton establishment.

Veblen might have been forgiven for social climbing but his first book "The Theory of the Leisure Class" would forever brand him as a Puritan heretic. Veblen set Social Darwinism on its ear. The rich, he claimed, were not examples of the survival of the fittest, but the remnants of the predatory classes of pirates and raiders and thieves. They had preserved the archaic traits of their barbarian ancestors. They were the partially evolved. Mostly, they were ridiculous.

Veblen agreed that humans had evolved. All around him he could see scientists, inventors, engineers, and craftsmen producing the parts of what would be called the industrial revolution. They were not the rich but were rather the victims of the partially evolved barbarians who looted enterprise of all sorts through force and fraud.

Even today, Veblen's great intellectual answer to the Social Darwinians is honored by the name chosen for the organization of economists who subscribe to his basic theories--the Association For Evolutionary Economics (AFEE).

Veblen may have forever branded himself a Puritan heretic, but he became a hero to those who believe that merit should have rewards even if it does not lead to wealth. Every kid who has worked to pay for college and is offended by rich idiots like Dan Quayle or the British royal family can find something to cheer about in Veblen's writings.

Moreover, every society that elevates merit over considerations of class or birth, that rewards productive genius rather than predatory fraud, or organizes itself so there is a large middle class rather than one with a wealthy, tiny, "elect" at the expense of an impoverished majority, is more successful and prosperous. For all the success of Puritanism in its early stages, the industrial revolution was a triumph of the truly evolved over the partially evolved. Because in the end, Puritan capitalism can only promise wars, civil disorder, and global depressions.

The current global barely-contained economic depression is proof positive that Veblen was absolutely correct. Of all the political economists from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, only Veblenian economic theories have never been discredited. And as the global depression deepens, the Puritan heretic's ideas will again be remembered--no matter how Carleton College or the Minnesota Historical Society treats his memory. The farm is being restored--can Veblen's intellectual reputation be far behind?


RETURN TO: Correcting the history of Thorstein Veblen


modify datebloglinkall videosall pdf filescontact usend