Sunday, February 11, 2007

John Kenneth Galbraith, R.I.P.

The late John Kenneth Galbraith has been receiving many backhanded compliments from his eulogists on the political right. His old friend and skiing partner William F. Buckley Jr. repeated this quote, from his review of Galbraith's last book, The Culture of Contentment, in his article "John Kenneth Galbraith, R.I.P." on May 03, 2006:

"It is fortunate for Professor Galbraith that he was born with singular gifts as a writer. It is a pity he hasn't used these skills in other ways than to try year after year to bail out his sinking ships. ...I for one hope that the next time a nation experimenting with socialism or communism fails, which will happen the next time a nation experiments with socialism or communism, Ken Galbraith will feel the need to explain what happened. It's great fun to read. It helps, of course, to suppress wistful thought about those who endured, or died trying, the passage toward collective living to which Professor Galbraith has beckoned us for over 40 years."

Does this accurately describe Galbraith's career? It strikes me as rather odd that we should venerate the economic genius of John Maynard Keynes's macroeconomics, the enormous contributions of Chamberlin and Robinson to incorporating a real-world picture of imperfect competition into microeconomics, Schumpeter's insights into the evolution of modern capitalism, Berle and Means' theory of managerial control, the wit and social acuity or sociologist Thorstein Veblein, or the journalistic style of Henry Luce, and yet not revere the man who best combined all of these various qualities. But I won't regale my readers with an account of Galbraith's life, or re-hash all of the debates about his theories, which are widely discussed on the internet and elsewhere.

Instead, I wish to concentrate on what Galbraith had to say about the central, implicit assumption underlying Buckley's quote: that his brand of liberalism was a "passage to collective living"--in other words, a slippery slope to socialism, a "road to serfdom" in Hayek's phraseology. For a cardinal tenet of all right-wing neoliberals and neoconservatives is that there is no happy medium, no optimal "Third Way" which finds a stable and pragmatic balance between laissez faire and socialism. In stark contrast, John Kenneth Galbraith was the 20th century's original Third Way theorist. Arguing as much against socialists as against conservatives (there is an overlooked comparison to George Orwell here), the young Professor Galbraith once gave a stern Scottish lecture to the more utopian English musings of radical social reformer and biologist Julian Huxley:

"Broadly speaking the choice for postwar social organization lies somewhere between two poles. ...One cannot regulate without impairing the freedom of contract and the control over private property, for private property is nothing more nor less than the privileges which are associated with private ownership. One cannot have perfect individual freedom and at the same time a greater effort to regulate relations between individuals in the community interest. ...So far as individual comfort, health, recreational opportunities and the like are not forthcoming otherwise, the central authority provides them as a matter of course." (Cited in Richard Parker, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, p. 133, emphasis added). This strikes me as the sensible core of Galbraith's approach to economics: the market delivers much that is of value, but (even in the long run, as Keynes had famously said) it also fails to deliver much that is of value.

While conservatives like George Will and Bill Buckley may see The Affluent Society as condescending and elitist--because it calls into question "consumer sovereignty" in an economy dominated by giant corporations spending billions of dollars on advertising--the twin themes of want creation and the imbalance between public and private goods seem as relevant today as they were when Galbraith's book was first published almost 50 years ago. Indeed, the very successes of conservative politicians in limiting the welfare state have made it so. Had John Kenneth Galbraith simply couched his arguments in the technical language of externalities, market failure, social efficiency, asymmetric information and game theory, no doubt more of his fellow economists would agree.