Institutionalizing Institutionalism: John Commons and the Wisconsin Industrial Commission, 1910-1950

Alexander Myers, University of Kansas

How much influence can one individual have on an institution? And to what extent can abstract theoretical knowledge guide the creation and evolution of a formal bureaucratic institution? This paper delves into these questions by tracing the influence of economist John Commons on the creation and evolution of the Wisconsin state Industrial Commission from 1910 to 1950. Commons has long been recognized as the formalizer (if not the founder) of institutional economics, as well as a pioneer in the field of labor history (Kaufman 2007:4). Somewhat less well known is his political work in helping create the state’s Industrial Commission and drafting much of its labor legislation. Part of a larger project on the development of Wisconsin’s labor market institutions, this paper uses primary source material from the Wisconsin Historical Society archives and the state’s labor laws to demonstrate the singular influence Commons had on the development of labor market institutions in the state. I argue that Commons’ (1931:648) definition of an institution—“collective action in control, liberation and expansion of individual action”—was made empirical reality in the creation and operations of the Industrial Commission in 1911, which lasted through the Depression and into the post-war period. This case complicates theories of institutional genesis and change by highlighting the influence a single individual can have on an institution’s creation and evolution (e.g. Mahoney and Thelen 2009; Hay and Wincott 1998). Commons’ strong influence on the Industrial Commission was both direct, through his own work, and indirect, through the rotation of several of his students through the Commission’s leadership over the course of its first four decades.

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 Presented in Session 171. Labor and the Law