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Edited by Jürgen G. Backhaus
Chapter 36: John R. Commons (1862–1945)
36 John R. Commons (1862–1945) Warren J. Samuels John R. Commons was a historian and theoretician of the economic system in general and of capitalism in particular. The core of his legal–economic theory was presented in the title of one of his major works, Legal Foundations of Capitalism (1924). Central to his analyses were understandings that markets are formed and structured by institutions and power structures which also operate through them; that chief among these institutions were those of law and government; that economy and polity coevolved through a legal–economic nexus; that states and politics were essentially processes of collective bargaining among powerful interested parties; that the economy was an object of legal control and the law was an object of economic advantage; that politics was a contest to control the state, often for economic objectives; and that legal– economic policy making was a process through which the organization and control of the economic system was worked out, constituting in part authoritative determinations of public purpose – and it was only through articulation of public purpose that choices between conﬂicting private interests could be established. Commons developed these ideas in a series of publications issued throughout his life. Together with his work on labour unions, these ideas were the foundation of his version of institutional economics. Commons derived his theoretical insights from his practical, historical and empirical studies, particularly in the ﬁeld of labour relations and in various areas of social reform. He drew insight not only...
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