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History of Political Economy 36.1 (2004) 31-78

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Institutional Economics at Columbia University

Malcolm Rutherford

In the period between the wars Columbia University was one of the leading American universities in the area of economics and the other social sciences. In general intellectual terms it at least equaled Chicago and Harvard, and it must be remembered that New York was the preeminent center of American intellectual life. Moreover, in terms of the numbers of doctoral degrees granted in economics, Columbia was the leader, and by quite a margin (Froman 1942). Despite this, the economics associated with Columbia is much less well known or recognized today than, for example, the interwar Chicago economics of Frank Knight and Jacob Viner. This relative neglect is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Columbia faculty contained a large concentration of people of institutionalist persuasion, and institutionalism declined in its professional position after World War II. However, what this means is not that the study [End Page 31] of Columbia economics is uninteresting, but that it can tell us a great deal—both about institutionalism and the changing character of American economics during the interwar period.

Between 1913 and the early 1930s Columbia became the academic home of a particularly large concentration of economists of institutionalist leaning. These include Wesley Mitchell, J. M. Clark, Frederick C. Mills, Paul Brissenden, James Bonbright, Robert Hale, Joseph Dorfman, Carter Goodrich, Rexford Tugwell, Gardiner Means, Leo Wolman,1 Horace Taylor, A. F. Burns, and, later on, Karl Polanyi. Perhaps A. R. Burns, and Eveline Burns, should also be included as being, at the least, sympathetic to institutionalist ideas. Furthermore, over the period in question, the Department of Economics was a graduate department offering degrees within the Faculty of Political Science. The faculty also contained the graduate departments of sociology, history, and public law. Karl Llewellyn and Adolf A. Berle were members of the Department of Public Law and the Law School. Robert Hale moved from economics to the Law School, and Gardiner Means was a member of the economic research staff of the Law School between 1927 and 1933, and was an associate in law from 1933 to 1935. From 1919 to 1927 the sociology department included William Ogburn. Until 1917 the Department of History had Charles Beard, and James Harvey Robinson until 1919. Outside of the Faculty of Political Science, the philosophy department contained John Dewey, whose instrumentalist philosophy was widely influential and closely connected to institutional economics. There were also close relations between the School of Business, established in 1916, and the Department of Economics. James Bonbright and Paul Brissenden, as well as other economists, were appointed in the School of Business, and Frederick C. Mills held a joint appointment. In addition, there was Mitchell's National Bureau of Economic Research, which had close [End Page 32] connections with several Columbia faculty and employed many Columbia students and graduates.

There has been substantial material produced on the work and careers of Wesley Mitchell (Biddle 1998), J. M. Clark (Shute 1997), and Rexford Tugwell (Sternsher 1964), but virtually nothing on issues that relate to the place of Columbia within the institutionalist movement or American economics. Questions arise concerning how Columbia became such a center for institutionalism, the relationships between the various people of institutional orientation who were there, the overall character and content of Columbia institutional economics, the graduates who identified themselves with institutionalism, the point at which one can begin to see signs of the weakening of institutionalism at Columbia, and how the more general decline of institutionalism was reflected in the history of the Columbia department.

In order to aid the discussion, table 1 provides a listing by decade (based on date of first appointment) of those faculty members in economics and business who form the central points of discussion in this essay. This is not a complete listing of faculty, but it does list those associated with institutionalism, as well as the more important representatives of the neoclassical approach in the department. Also listed are significant faculty in other departments; a selective listing, by date of Ph...


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