On the life and work of the great rogue economist of the 20th century.
America in the spring of 1909 was, as usual, going to hell in a handbasket, and as usual, it was the professors who were swinging the basket by its strap. A journalist named Harold Bolce, writing for The Cosmopolitan Magazine on American institutions of higher learning pretty much gave the gist of it in a series of articles for the magazine. As he told it, in hundreds of classrooms around the country it was being taught daily that the Decalogue was no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution was doomed; that there were no absolute evils; that immorality was simply an act in contravention of society’s accepted standards; that democracy was a failure and the Declaration of Independence only spectacular rhetoric; that the change from one religion to another was like getting a new hat. The academy was a slough of cultural relativity and the whole thing was really quite terrifying, according to the Cosmopolitan.
Veblen went beyond the warts and bumps on the surface of human behavior; he cut to the very bone.
Bolce had spent two years sitting in classrooms and interviewing professors and college administrators. The serious, thoughtful men—and one or two women—he listened to were able to espouse the most radical doctrines from the sanctity of the lectern. Yet somehow Bolce missed one of the worst of the worst, at once one of the most famous yet most reclusive of American scholars, who had been since 1907 living among the pines and cedars a mile from the Stanford campus.
This was Professor Thorstein Veblen. But anonymity was exactly what this quiet professor wanted, for his life, his very style of writing at this time, was one long parade of artifice, irony, and circumlocution, an elaborate mystification of who he really was and what he really believed. He was the most impossible of professors. His students found him an enigma—that is, the few who remained in his classes, for he usually seemed intent on having no students at all.