Wisconsin Idea

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In the United States, this was the name given to a philosophy of public service by university scholars working with and advising state governments during the Progressive Era. It was particularly successful in Wisconsin (hence the name) where social science professors (especially John R. Commons and Richard T. Ely) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison often advised the governor (especially Robert M. La Follette Sr.) and legislators. It was a pioneering experiment in emphasizing the importance of the university in making a major contribution to public policy issues affecting mainly controversial social problems such as social insurance or labor relations.

It was not popular in other states nor at other times despite gaining a lot of notoriety and praise for its pioneering efforts addressing social issues.

It did, however, have lasting influence. As social scientists became more adept and more influential in the development of legislation and the administration of social and labor programs, they were called upon as experts when the time came. This was especially true of the New Deal. John R. Commons estimated that at least thirty of his former students were serving in some New Deal program or Roosevelt Administration position. So profound was Commons's influence through his students that economist Kenneth E. Boulding called Commons "the intellectual origin of the New Deal, of labor legislation, of social security, of the whole movement in this country towards a welfare state."[1]


  1. Jess Gilbert and Ellen Baker, "Wisconsin Economists and New Deal Agricultural Policy: The Legacy of Progressive Professors," The Wisconsin Magazine of History 80, no. 4 (Summer 1997), 281; Kenneth E. Boulding, "Institutional Economics: A New Look at Institutionalism," American Economic Review 47, no. 7 (May 1957), 7.