John R. Commons

John R. Commons

John R. Commons
Born (1862-10-13)October 13, 1862
Hollansburg, Ohio
Died May 11, 1945(1945-05-11) (aged 82)
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Nationality American
Field Institutional economics, labor history
School or
Institutional economics
Influences Richard T. Ely
Henry Dunning Macleod
Influenced Edwin E. Witte
Gunnar Myrdal
Herbert Simon
Oliver Williamson
Herbert A. Simon

John Rogers Commons (/ˈkɑːmənz/; October 13, 1862 – May 11, 1945) was an American institutional economist, Georgist, progressive and labor historian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.[1]

Early years

John R. Commons was born in Hollansburg, Ohio on October 13, 1862. Commons had a religious upbringing which led him to be an advocate for social justice early in life. Commons was considered a poor student and suffered from a mental illness while studying. He was allowed to graduate without finishing because of the potential seen in his intense determination and curiosity. At this time, Commons became a follower of Henry George's 'single tax' economics.[2] He carried this 'Georgist' or 'Ricardian' approach to economics, with a focus on land and monopoly rents, throughout the rest of his life, including a proposal for income taxes with higher rates on land rents.[3][4][5][6][7]

After graduating from Oberlin College, Commons did two years of graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under Richard T. Ely,[8] but left without a degree.[9][10] After appointments at Oberlin and Indiana University, Commons began teaching at Syracuse University in 1895.[11]

In spring 1899, Syracuse dismissed him as a radical.[12] Eventually Commons re-entered academia at the University of Wisconsin in 1904.[8]

Commons' early work exemplified his desire to unite Christian ideals with the emerging social sciences of sociology and economics. He was a frequent contributor to Kingdom magazine, was a founder of the American Institute for Christian Sociology, and authored a book in 1894 called Social Reform and the Church.[13] He was an advocate of temperance legislation and was active in the national Prohibition Party.[13] By his Wisconsin years, Commons' scholarship had become less moralistic and more empirical, however.


Commons believed that carefully crafted legislation could create social change; that view led him to be known as a socialist radical and incrementalist.

Commons is best known for developing an analysis of collective action by the state and other institutions, which he saw as essential to understanding economics.

He continued the strong American tradition in institutional economics by such figures as the economist and social theorist Thorstein Veblen. His notion of transaction is one of the most important contribution to Institutional Economics.[14] The institutional theory was closely related to his remarkable successes in fact-finding and drafting legislation on a wide range of social issues for the state of Wisconsin. He drafted legislation establishing Wisconsin's worker's compensation program, the first of its kind in the United States.

In 1934, Commons published Institutional Economics, which laid out his view that institutions were made up of collective actions that, along with conflict of interests, defined the economy. He believed that institutional economics added collective control of individual transactions to existing economic theory.[15] Commons considered the Scottish economist Henry Dunning Macleod to be the "originator" of Institutional economics.[16]

Commons was a contributor to The Pittsburgh Survey, an 1907 sociological investigation of a single American city. His graduate student, John A. Fitch, wrote The Steel Workers, a classic depiction of a key industry in early 20th-century America. It was one of six key texts to come out of the survey. Edwin E. Witte, later known as the "father of social security" also did his PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Madison under Commons.

He was a leading advocate of proportional representation in the United States, writing a book on the subject in 1907 and serving as vice-president of the Proportional Representation League.[17]

Commons undertook two major studies of the history of labor unions in the United States. Beginning in 1910, he edited A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, a large work that preserved many original-source documents of the American labor movement. Almost as soon as that work was complete, Commons began editing History of Labor in the United States, a narrative work which built on the previous 10-volume documentary history.

John R. Commons

Death and legacy

He died on May 11, 1945.

Today, Commons's contribution to labor history is considered equal to his contributions to the theory of institutional economics. He also made valuable contributions to the history of economic thought, especially with regard to collective action. His racist writing is not well known today, and he is honored at the University of Wisconsin in Madison with rooms and clubs named for him.[18]

His former home, now known as the John R. Commons House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[19][20]



Solely authored works
Co-authored works
Edited works

See also


  1. Rutherford, Malcolm (2006). "Wisconsin Institutionalism: John R. Commons and His Students". Labor History. 47 (2): 161–188. doi:10.1080/00236560600583123.
  2. Brue, Stanley (2012). The Evolution of Economic Thought (PDF) (Supplemental Biography of John Rogers Commons for chapter 19 of the online edition of The Evolution of Economic Thought ed.). Cengage Learning. Retrieved 1 September 2014.
  3. Commons, John R. "The Distribution of Wealth", 1893
  4. Commons, John R. "Institutional Economics: Its Place In Political Economy" Vol 2. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959.
  5. Henry George's Resurrection of the Science of Political Economy (Part Three) Edward J. Dodson
  6. Harter, Lafayette G. John R. Commons, His Assault on Laissez-faire. Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 1962. Pages 21, 32, 36, 38.
  7. "Two Centuries of Economic Thought on Taxation of Land Rents." In Richard Lindholm and Arthur Lynn, Jr., (eds.), Land Value Taxation in Thought and Practice. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1982, pp. 151-96.
  8. 1 2 J. David Hoeveler, Jr., "John R. Commons," Historical Dictionary of the Progressive Era, 1890–1920. Revised Edition. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988; pp. 85–86.
  9. Harter, Lafayette G. (1962). John R. Commons: His Assault on Laissez-Faire. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press. pp. 19–20.
  10. Lampman, Robert J., ed. (1993). Economists at Wisconsin, 1892–1992. p. 22.
  12. Richard A. Gonce (2002), "John R. Commons's "Five Big Years": 1899–1904", The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. i+755–777, p. 756
  13. 1 2 Hoeveler, "John R. Commons," pg. 85.
  14. Nicita A. and M. Vatiero (2007), “The Contract and the Market: Towards a Broader Notion of Transaction?”. Studi e Note di Economia, 1:7–22. Link
  15. Vatiero, Massimiliano. "From W. N. Hohfeld to J. R. Commons, and Beyond? A "Law and Economics" Enquiry on Jural Relations", American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 69(2): 840–866, 2010.
  16. Commons, John Rogers (1990). Institutional Economics: Its Place in Political Economy. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers. p. 399. ISBN 0-88738-797-7.
  17. The John R. Commons Room on the 8th floor of the Sociology building, and the John R. Commons Club in the Economics department


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