Moral Superiority

July 23, 2005

John Kenneth Galbraith, along with Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr., was one of the founding fathers of post-World War II American liberalism. While Schlesinger argued that the New Deal was the natural expression of deep-seated trends in American history, Galbraith tried to show how the Keynesian insights of the late New Deal were the key to post-war prosperity. That Galbraith was sometimes known as JKG and Schlesinger as AMS was a tribute to the only two presidents either man approved of, fellow Harvard men FDR and JFK.

Born in 1908 on a Canadian farm to an agrarian radical father, the young Galbraith, a student of agricultural economics, in 1941 became FDR's wartime price-control czar, an experience that both guided and misguided him for the next 60 years. In the 1950s, two books -- American Capitalism, which introduced the concept of "countervailing power," and The Affluent Society, which created the conceptual backdrop to the Great Society of the 1960s -- established Galbraith at the very center of American intellectual and political firmament, a position he has relinquished only to old age.

Galbraith's career has been a mix of acute insights and stunning misjudgments, both cloaked in what his admirers and detractors alike recognized as a sparkling wit. His insistence on looking at the economy in the full frame of its political and social setting freed him from the arid "mathematizing" of economics, which has led economists to offer increasingly accurate answers to increasingly inconsequential questions.

A fervent Keynesian, he nonetheless saw the inflationary dangers that came from an expansionary fiscal policy. Galbraith was among the first to ask just what America's great prosperity was to be used for, and his insights about the evolving tragedy of Vietnam, developed when he was JFK's ambassador to India in the early 1960s, were profound.

Richard Parker's 820-page authorized biography of Galbraith, clearly a labor of love, is at its best when it deals with debates within the economics profession and Galbraith's role as an early critic of Vietnam. But the book suffers from the fundamental problem that in Parker's eyes, Galbraith can do no wrong.

The decline of Galbraith's influence, which began in the 1970s, paralleling the decline of American liberalism, is never dealt with, except to say that those with whom the great man disagreed were wrong or deluded. In omissions and oversights, Parker's book reminds one of the downward trajectory of American liberalism in the period when, in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's words, it began to suffer from a "leakage of reality."

Although Galbraith was an intellectual architect of the Great Society, Parker has literally nothing to say about that project's failings. Perhaps that's just as well.

When Galbraith commented on New York's 1970s fiscal crisis, brought on in large measure by the massive growth of welfare spending, his solution was to spend even more. Stung by the rise of the monetarist school of conservative economics led by Milton Friedman, Galbraith's alternative in the 1970s was to call for the nationalization of major American industries.

This was a natural extension of the arguments he had laid out in The New Industrial State (1967). There, he argued that large corporations, through their ability to stifle competition and supposedly guarantee consumption through advertising, were a private-sector version of a planned economy immune to competitive forces. But Galbraith's attempt to update FDR's fight against "the economic royalists" fell flat in the 1970s, when American auto, steel, and airline companies were knocked off their thrones by foreign competition.

Extending the argument of The New Industrial State, Galbraith insisted that the United States and the Soviet Union were becoming increasingly alike, converging into somewhat different versions of the planned society. This was no small misjudgment. Galbraith's conceit about the depth of his insights led him 1980 to describe the gray-on-gray world of East Berlin as strikingly similar to the neon-lit streets of West Berlin.

Five years later, writing for The New Yorker about another visit to the Eastern bloc, he argued, "The Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years. ... One sees it in the appearance of solid well-being of the people on the streets. ... Partly the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower." Neither this nor any similar quote can be found in Parker's biography.

Galbraith, famous as he grew older for extended monologues, whatever the occasion, was just as astigmatic when it came to American politics. A man who had come of age at a time when farmers were radicals and Harvard professors were Republicans had a hard time coming to grips with the politics of the GOP revival. In his 1991 book, The Culture of Contentment, he raged against the supposed complacency of the sheep-like American public at a time when the country was roiled by rising crime and property tax rates, not to mention the Ross Perot-led reaction to rising deficits.

And the best the ideologically blinkered Galbraith could say about the economic boom of the 1990s and President Clinton's fiscal stewardship is that at least Clinton wasn't a Republican. But Clinton, unlike Galbraith, the planned-economy guru, was attuned to the importance of entrepreneurship in the new American economy. Contrary to Galbraith's assumption that companies like General Motors would always dominate, most new American companies, notes Robert D. Atkinson in The Past and Future of America's Economy (2005), are the result of entrepreneurial and technological breakthroughs that challenged companies while producing a rebound in productivity. Indeed, 19 of today's top 25 U.S. companies were started after 1965.

Galbraith's most enduring legacy, his intellectual rigidity aside, may be the special sense of style he brought to liberal politics. In The Affluent Society, he spoke of a "new class" of professionals, men and woman of expertise like himself, to whom he entrusted the future of the republic. It was their ability to see beyond what he derisively described as "the conventional wisdom" that entitled them to govern. Those professionals, certain of their moral and intellectual superiority, still speak in Galbraithian cadences about the "silliness" of their opponents. Conservatives have largely broken free of the hauteur of Galbraith's famous sparring partner, William F. Buckley Jr., but liberals, thanks partly to Galbraith, are still trapped in the vanquished certainties of a bygone age.

Fred Siegel is a professor at The Cooper Union and culture editor of BLUEPRINT.

by Fred Siegel, Blueprint