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The Alternate Conception and John R. Commons


  • J. Chasse


This paper places Commons and his friend, Edward Alsworth Ross, in the context of the attack by Richard T. Ely and Lester Frank Ward on a conception of history that attributed all progress in human welfare to natural processes — Darwinian natural selection and market mechanisms. According to this conception, interference with these natural processes would be counterproductive. Ward, a confirmed Darwinian, coined the term "artificial selection" when he proposed an alternate conception that attributed most progress to the disciplined application of human intelligence. Ross adapted Ward's artificial-natural distinction to the problem of social order, arguing that random variation and survival of the fittest can generate social controls that preserve order in small communities, but that only artificial social controls can keep order in complex societies. Ross's distinction made its way into the Legal Foundations of Capitalism and Institutional Economics where Commons focused on the evolution of what Ross labeled artificial social controls — laws governing the wage bargain and the behavior of corporations. In the process Commons confronted the problem of deliberation, the problem of obtaining intelligent actions and decisions from passionate, biased humans organized in democratic societies.

Suggested Citation

  • J. Chasse, 2012. "The Alternate Conception and John R. Commons," Journal of Economic Issues, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 46(3), pages 589-614.
  • Handle: RePEc:mes:jeciss:v:46:y:2012:i:3:p:589-614
    DOI: 10.2753/JEI0021-3624460301

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