Simon Nelson Patten

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Simon Nelson Patten

The American economist Simon Nelson Patten (1852-1922) predicted that with modern technology and proper social planning the United States and Europe could move from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance.

Simon Patten was born on May 1, 1852, in Sandwich, Ill. There he imbibed a profound belief in the Protestant ethic and the efficacy of achieving social reform through such established and conservative institutions as the Republican party and the Presbyterian Church. He attended the University of Halle (1876-1879), where he came under the influence of the Younger Historical school, a group of economists who believed that scholars should use their expertise to help solve modern social problems. His German experience reinforced his belief in social reform and planned change, but within an American context—that is, change and reform through voluntary action with minimal governmental control.

After several years of apprenticeship teaching in primary and secondary schools, Patten in 1887 was appointed professor of economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He held this important post until 1917, when his vigorous antiwar views got him into trouble and he was forced into premature retirement.

Patten was a forceful teacher and a prolific writer. Over the years he published 22 books and several hundred articles, both scholarly and popular. Not a truly cogent or profound or systematic thinker, Patten was constitutionally unable to synthesize his ideas into a magnum opus. The New Basis of Civilization (1907), an outgrowth of lectures he delivered in 1905 at the New York School of Social Work, was his most important work. It ran through eight editions between 1907 and 1923. Yet it revealed only a few elements of his theories.

Basically, Patten appeared to be working toward a theory of social behavior for mankind that would fuse the principles of the New Testament with the technology of a modern industrial society. He believed that with the new technology the earth's resources were adequate to provide an economy of abundance for the Western world; that is, there was enough wealth available so that everyone could achieve a proper diet, good basic housing and clothing, and an education that would meet the job requirements of industry. What was lacking was group social action to achieve these desired goals. Such a cultural lag could be overcome by reform, but for Patten these reforms could not go much beyond those advocated by Progressive politicians of the Robert La Follette type. Consequently, the United States still had not achieved Patten's economy of abundance when he died on July 24, 1922, at Browns Mills, N.J.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Patten is Daniel M. Fox, The Discovery of Abundance: Simon N. Patten and the Transformation of Social Theory (1967), which provides a good discussion of Patten's career and a sound analysis of his basic ideas. □

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Simon Nelson Patten

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