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John R. Commons was born in Hollansburg, Ohio on October 13, 1862. Commons had a religious upbringing which led him to be an advocate for social justice early in life. Commons was considered a poor student and suffered from a mental illness while studying. He was allowed to graduate without finishing because of the potential seen in his intense determination and curiosity. At this time, Commons became a follower of Henry George's 'single tax' economics. He carried this 'Georgist' or 'Ricardian' approach to economics, with a focus on land and monopoly rents, throughout the rest of his life, including a proposal for income taxes with higher rates on land rents.
Commons' early work exemplified his desire to unite Christian ideals with the emerging social sciences of sociology and economics. He was a frequent contributor to Kingdom magazine, was a founder of the American Institute for Christian Sociology, and authored a book in 1894 called Social Reform and the Church. He was an advocate of temperance legislation and was active in the national Prohibition Party. By his Wisconsin years, Commons' scholarship had become less moralistic and more empirical, and he moved away from a religious viewpoint in his ethics and sociology.
John R. Commons at his desk at the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s.
Commons is best known for developing an analysis of collective action by the state and other institutions, which he saw as essential to understanding economics. Commons believed that carefully crafted legislation could create social change; that view led him to be known as a socialist radical and incrementalist. Nevertheless he was also a racist, evident in his belief that only northern Europeans, because of their "basic and innate qualities of intelligence, manliness, and co-operation", could form Democratic societies. He continued the strong American tradition in institutional economics by such figures as the economist and social theorist Thorstein Veblen. His notion of transaction is one of the most important contribution to Institutional Economics. The institutional theory was closely related to his remarkable successes in fact-finding and drafting legislation on a wide range of social issues for the state of Wisconsin. He drafted legislation establishing Wisconsin's worker's compensation program, the first of its kind in the United States.
In 1934, Commons published Institutional Economics, which laid out his view that institutions were made up of collective actions that, along with conflict of interests, defined the economy. He believed that institutional economics added collective control of individual transactions to existing economic theory. Commons considered the Scottish economist Henry Dunning Macleod to be the "originator" of Institutional economics.
Commons was a contributor to The Pittsburgh Survey, a 1907 sociological investigation of a single American city. His graduate student, John A. Fitch, wrote The Steel Workers, a classic depiction of a key industry in early 20th-century America. It was one of six key texts to come out of the survey. Edwin E. Witte, later known as the "father of social security" also did his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under Commons.
He was a leading advocate of proportional representation in the United States, writing a book on the subject in 1907 and serving as vice-president of the Proportional Representation League.
Commons undertook two major studies of the history of labor unions in the United States. Beginning in 1910, he edited A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, a large work that preserved many original-source documents of the American labor movement. Almost as soon as that work was complete, Commons began editing History of Labor in the United States, a narrative work which built on the previous 10-volume documentary history.
Death and legacy
He died on May 11, 1945.
Today, Commons's contribution to labor history is considered equal to his contributions to the theory of institutional economics. He also made valuable contributions to the history of economic thought, especially with regard to collective action. He is honored at the University of Wisconsin in Madison with rooms and clubs named for him.
"An institution is defined as collective action in control, liberation and expansion of individual action." --"Institutional Economics" American Economic Review, vol. 21 (December 1931), pp. 648-657.
"...But the smallest unit of the institutional economists is a unit of activity -- a transaction, with its participants. Transactions intervene between the labor of the classic economists and the pleasures of the hedonic economists, simply because it is society that controls access to the forces of nature, and transactions are, not the "exchange of commodities," but the alienation and acquisition, between individuals, of the rights of property and liberty created by society, which must therefore be negotiated between the parties concerned before labor can produce, or consumers can consume, or commodities be physically exchanged..." --"Institutional Economics" American Economic Review, vol. 21 (December 1931), pp. 648-657.
"A line drawn across the continent of Europe from northeast to southwest, separating the Scandinavian peninsula, the British Isles, Germany, and France from Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, separates countries not only of distinct races but also of distinct civilizations. It separates Protestant Europe from Catholic Europe; it separates countries of representative institutions and popular government from absolute monarchies; it separates lands where education is universal from lands where illiteracy predominates; it separates manufacturing countries, progressive agriculture, and skilled labor from primitive hand industries, backward agriculture, and unskilled labor; it separates an educated, thrifty peasantry from a peasantry scarcely a single generation removed from serfdom; it separates Teutonic races from Latin, Slav, Semitic, and Mongolian races. When the sources of American immigration are shifted from the Western countries so nearly allied to our own, to Eastern countries so remote in the main attributes of Western civilization, the change is one that should challenge the attention of every citizen." --Races and Immigrants in America, pg. 69-70.
"It is an easy and patriotic matter for the lawyer, minister, professor, employer, or investor, placed above the arena of competition, to proclaim the equal right of all races to American opportunities; to avow his own willingness to give way should even a better Chinaman, Hindu, or Turk come in to take his place; and to rebuke the racial hatred of those who resist this displacement. His patriotism and world-wide brotherhood cost him and his family nothing, and indeed they add to his profits and leisure." --Races and Immigrants in America, pg. 115-16.
^Brue S. and Grant R. (2012). The Evolution of Economic Thought (PDF) (Supplemental Biography of John Rogers Commons for chapter 19 of the online edition of The Evolution of Economic Thought ed.). Cengage Learning. Retrieved 1 September 2014.
Barbash, Jack. "John R. Commons: Pioneer of Labor Economics," Monthly Labor Review 112:5 (May 1989) 
Coats, A.W. "John R. Commons as a Historian of Economics: The Quest for the Antecedents of Collective Action" in Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Vol.1, 1983.
Commons, John R. Myself. Reprint ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
Dorfman, Joseph. The Economic Mind in American Civilization: 1918-1933. Vols. 4 and 5. Reissue ed. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publications, 1969. ISBN0-678-00540-0
Fitch, John A. The Steel Workers. Reprint ed. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1910 (1989). ISBN0-8229-6091-5.
Parson, Kenneth. "John R. Commons Point of View," Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics (Land Economics) 18(3):245-60 (1942).
Samuels, Warren. "Reader's Guide to John R. Commons Legal Foundations of Capitalism," in Warren Samuels, ed. Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Archival Supplement 5, Amsterdam: Elsevier 1996.
Tichi, Cecelia. "John R. Commons: The Pittsburgh Survey," in "Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (And What They Teach Us)." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Kemp, Thomas. Progress and Reform, Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag, 2009.
Fiorito Luca, and Massimiliano Vatiero (2011), "Beyond Legal Relations: Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld's Influence on American Institutionalism". Journal of Economics Issues, 45 (1): 199-222.