Fawning Over Galbraith – to a Point

The New York Review of Books is a well-edited magazine and the writing in it is of high quality. That's not to say the writers tell it like it is, unfortunately, so the recent kudos, delivered in the way of a review of a book about the famous Harvard "economist," manages to avoid saying perhaps what's most interesting about John Kenneth Galbraith's recent intellectual development.

Professor Galbraith has been as avid a socialist in the American academy as that's possible to be without coming off utterly ridiculous. He has managed to cling to his Leftist-statist dreams about how a society should be organized by blaming everything that's gone wrong in the country on capitalism, never mind that blaming the mixed economy and the absence of bona fide free markets would have been much more credible and defensible. Of course, because when it comes to truths about social affairs testing them is difficult – we cannot run experiments sticking a few millions into fascist, another few into socialist, then yet another into welfare states and into capitalist laboratories – dreamers can fare well enough.

Now you may believe that I am engaging here in some distortion – isn't it to beg the question to call Galbraith and his American socialist pals "dreamers"? Well, not if you listen to, you guessed it, Galbraith himself.

This famous champion of nationalization of much of American industry – in one of his books in the 1970s, The New Industrial State – and the fierce regulation of corporate commerce, as well as the view that consumers are imprisoned by way of advertising (check out his The Affluent Society for this one), ultimately changed his mind, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. I recall reading an interview in Alitalia Airlines' in-flight magazine, as I flew from Rome to Athens some years ago, where Galbraith stated unequivocally that capitalism is the winner between the two major alternatives in contemporary political economy. He was asked, in an interview published in the October 1996 issue of the magazine, "You spoke of the failure of socialism. Do you see this as a total failure, a counterproductive alternative?" To this question he replied as follows:

"I'd make a distinction here. What failed was the entrepreneurial state, but it had some beneficial effect. I do not believe that there are any radical alternatives, but there are correctives. The only alternative socialism, that is the alternative to the market economy, has failed. The market system is here to stay."

Nothing about this appeared in the fawning review in The New York Review of Books; the piece makes it appear that Galbraith, who is now 97, has remained an unreconstructed socialist (of the "democratic" variety). One may, I believe, assume that this has less to do with what Galbraith actually believes now than with what the author of the review, Jeffrey Madrick, an economist at the New School for Social Research and editor of Challenge Magazine, believes.

(Nor did Mr. Madrick report one of Galbraith most perceptive remarks, namely, "You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too."

I recall, in this connection, that when Robert Heilbroner, another long time champion of socialism, died recently, none of the obits reproduced his famous declaration, made in The New Yorker Magazine, namely, "Ludwig von Mises…had written of the u2018impossibility' of socialism, arguing that no Central Planning Board could ever gather the enormous amount of information needed to create a workable economic system…. It turns out, of course, that Mises was right…."

You need to watch out when current dreamers laud the thinking of older ones: Do they reveal the whole truth or only the portion that gives their dreams some measure of respectability?

May 19, 2005

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