The Veblen-Commons Award is the highest honor given annually by the Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE), in recognition of significant contributions to evolutionary institutional economics. Awarded since 1969, the award is presented to scholars “on the basis of their contributions to a better understanding of both the economic process and the behavior of the major institutions that shape that process and society’s goals and values” (Trebing, 1992, 333). The goal of institutional economics is to make the world a better place. In Veblen’s words, “the test to which all expenditure must be brought in an attempt to decide that point is the question whether it serves directly to enhance human life on the whole—whether it furthers the life process taken impersonally” (Veblen, [1899] 1953). As Allan Gruchy notes, “There is a very close connection between economic and ethical analysis, because economic thought is bent toward the future, when it is to be used for the purpose of finding answers to various economic problems” (Gruchy quoted in Klein, 1978, 240).

The award is named after the founders of institutional economics, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) and John R. Commons (1862–1945). Evolutionary institutional economics originated in the post-civil war era in the United States. Changes in technology initiated a change in society’s institutions, giving rise to corporations, a migration from farm to factory, and the emergence of a consumer society. Veblen referred to institutions as “special methods of life and of human relations.” Commons defined an institution “as collective action in control, liberation and expansion of individual action” (Commons, 1931).

Evolutionary institutional economics focuses on economic evolution, integrating culture with economics. The emphasis on culture stems from Veblen’s observation that “there was no natural way to determine how the corn should be divided” (See Mayhew, 1987). Veblen rejected the view that human beings are “lightning calculators of pleasure and pain” as conceived by mainstream economists. People are inherently social. Our sociality manifests itself in our desire to acquire the esteem of others. As Veblen observed, “the usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one’s neighbors” (Veblen, [1899] 1953). Under the market economy and its associated culture, the desire for acceptance is guided by pecuniary emulation, copying the money habits of others. Copying others, consuming the goods they consume, engaging in the activities in which they engage connects economics with culture. Everywhere, in every culture, people follow each other to acquire status and save face. In Western culture, however, emulation assumes a pecuniary form. Status assumes the form of money and wealth, and those things that money can buy.

John R. Commons followed Veblen in focusing on the role of institutions. Commons realized that institutions formalized in the law resulted from the efforts of the courts to resolve conflicts, arriving at a “reasonable value.” Among his many contributions, Commons recognized that the rise of corporations initiated a change in the concept of property. The issue centered on whether government had the right to regulate business. If property refers to the actual plant, regulation is impermissible based on the 14th amendment to the US constitution, which forbid states from seizing property without due process. If property refers to expected profits, then regulation of the use of property is permissible. The conception of property changes from a thing or use value (corporeal property) to its anticipated value (intangible property) (See Commons, 1924).

Recipients of the Veblen-Commons Award have made outstanding contributions to institutional economics in the tradition of Veblen and Commons. The recipients have concerned themselves with some of the most important topics confronting human society. These topics include exploring the underlying power relations within society, the origins and implications of inequality, feminist economics, the origins of discrimination, the enabling myths of the dominant groups, the continuing conflict between rights and duties, the possibilities offered by modern technologies and the use of those possibilities for good or ill, the causes of financial crises, and so on. It is important that we continue this tradition by recognizing significant contributions to institutional analysis.

AFEE Awards 2024

AFEE congratulates the winners for 2024 for Veblen-Commons Award, Clarence Ayres Scholar and James H. Street Scholar!

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Commons, John R. Legal Foundations of Capitalism. New York,: Macmillan 1924.

—. “Institutional Economics.” The American Economic Review 21, 4 (1931): 648-657.

Klein, Philip A. “The Veblen-Commons Award: Rexford Guy Tugwell.” Journal of Economic Issues 12, 2 (1978): 239-241.

Mayhew, Anne. “The Beginnings of Institutionalism.” Journal of Economic Issues, 21,3 (1987): 971-1000.

Trebing, Harry M. “The Veblen-Commons Award: Wallace C. Peterson.” Journal of Economic Issues 26, 2 (1992): 333-336.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Mentor Book, [1899] 1953.