Veblen's Placebo: A historical perspective on administrative evil

Jesse Dillard, Linda V. Ruchala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

2 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Thorstein Veblen was a turn of the 20th century American economist concerned with the implications of financial capitalists directing the means of production. Veblen proposed that the rationality of "material science" as practiced by the "production engineers" is fundamentally different from the rationality of market capitalism. If this claim is valid, our previous contentions regarding accounting, as a facilitating technology, for administrative evil warrant reconsideration. Veblen's position provides a historical perspective on one dimension of administrative evil that is generally unquestionably accepted, especially within accounting. That is, technology, such as accounting and the related information systems, is amoral, and it is only through ideologically instigated applications that any moral value accrues. We discuss administrative evil and the role of instrumental rationality generally, and accounting specifically, in creating it. Veblen's characterization of financial capitalism and production engineers and his arguments for the primacy of economic efficiency versus "pecuniary gain" provide a basis for evaluating the legitimating action. We consider how Veblen's work relates to notions of instrumental rationality and then undertake a critical assessment of the ideas. Some of Veblen's ideas, while utopian, might be seen as an elixir for the detrimental influences of financial capital; however, at best, they provide a placebo for the ills of administrative evil and, as such, do not provide an amoral basis for legitimating the associated accounting systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-29
Number of pages29
JournalAccounting Historian's Journal
Volume38
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2011

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