Richard T. Ely (1854-1943): “Wholesale cooperation through government”


By Lee Cary –

Richard Theodore Ely (1854–1943) was an American economist, and leader of the progressive movement who called for more government intervention in order to reform what they perceived as the injustices of capitalism, especially regarding factory conditions, compulsory education, child labor, and labor unions. Ely is best remembered as a founder and the first Secretary of the American Economic Association, as a founder and secretary of the Christian Social Union, and as the author of a series of widely-read books on the organized labor movement, socialism, and other social questions.”

Like so many of the American progressives of the late 19th Century, Ely was heavily influenced by German scholarship, and received a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Heidelberg in 1879.

From 1881-1892, he chaired the Department of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University.

Ely was one of the founders of the American Economic Association (AEA) in 1885. Below is a photo from the organization’s 2013 Annual Meeting.

American Economic Association (AEA)

Pictured left to right are:

  • Thomas D. Cabot, Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Harvard
  • Charles Irving Plosser, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
  • Donald Lewis Kohn, formerly Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
  • Christina D. Romer, Professor of Economics, University of California, Berkeley and former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration.
  • Alan Stuart Blinder, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Princeton University
  • Robert Lucas, Jr., John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, University of Chicago
  • David Romer, Professor of Political Economy, University of California, Berkeley, and author of a standard textbook in graduate macroeconomics

Ely’s most famous student at Johns Hopkins was Woodrow Wilson.

In his autobiography, entitled Ground Under Our Feet, Ely recounted his 1891 plea to reform the laws of inheritance.

“Excessive wealth discourages exertion, but a suitable reform of the laws of inheritance will remove from us many idle persons who consume annually immense quantities of wealth, but contribute nothing to the support of the race, and who, leading idle lives, cultivate bad ideals and disseminate social poison. For the sake of the sons of the rich, as well as for the sake of the sons of the poor, we need a reform of the laws of inheritance. A reform of the laws of property will help us to approach that ideal consideration in which the man who does not work shall not eat and it will also tend to the equalization of opportunities so as to give all a fairer start in life, allowing each one to make such use of opportunities as his capacity and diligence permit, and thus rendering inequalities, economic and social, led odious and injurious, more stimulating and helpful.” (p. 48, The Macmillan Company, 1938)

The ideological lineage of today’s progressive economists in America can be traced back through Ely, later through British economist John Maynard Keynes, and now across many of the economists from American’s most prestigious academies advising the Obama administration, and the Federal Reserve System, on national fiscal and monetary policies.

When President Obama claims that “all economists agree” about some policy his administration is undertaking, Ely’s ideological descendents are the species of economists to which he refers.

Other economists don’t agree, but remain unmentioned by the legacy media.

“The way which we must travel is long and weary, and yet it is one which affords delight in the prospect of progress.  Looking into the future we may contemplate a society in which men shall work together for common purposes, and in which this wholesome co-operation shall take place largely through government, but through a government which had become less repressive and has developed its positive side.” (Richard Ely)