Galbraith biography fails to explain failure of political liberalism in late 20th-century

John Kenneth Galbraith is a big subject in every sense: 96 years old; occupant of prestigious academic and public positions from an early age; bestselling author of more than 40 books; six-foot-eight. And Richard Parker’s John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics is a big book. With, like its subject, much superficial appeal but too little substance.

Given his fame and influence (I myself assigned his American Capitalism as a university text), Galbraith deserves a sympathetic biography. From humble birth in 1908 in Iona Station, Ontario, he rose to Harvard economics professor and public official (including running the U.S. Office of Price Administration from 1941 to 1943 and being John Kennedy’s ambassador to India). Parker also shows his deep involvement in politics as frequent Democratic National Convention delegate and senior adviser to Democratic losers from Adlai Stevenson to George McGovern to Edward Kennedy, with ample, occasionally excessive detail on matters from the New Deal to the New Frontier. And he rightly dismisses, as sour grapes, the frequent academic attacks on Galbraith’s lively writing. Truly, one wishes more scholars had his wit and clarity.

The biography is not uncritical. Parker notes that Galbraith’s accounts of his life include not just considerable reticence on personal matters but more than a few inaccuracies on his career. He had a long, busy life and one forgets things, but his lapses too often burnish his self-image as courageous outsider cold-shouldered by smug establishment. And here one encounters a significant problem to which this biography gives insufficient attention.

From the start, Galbraith’s books were warmly reviewed by economists and the popular press. Business titans from the Rockefellers to Time publisher Henry Luce sought his services, as did presidents from FDR to Gerald Ford; he got tenure at Harvard and is one of only two Americans to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice and the only person ever elected president of both the American Economic Association and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And there is no reason why not. Unless you believe his own theories.

Suffused with scorn

Galbraith’s radical economic vision is suffused with scorn for what he dubbed the “conventional wisdom.” He repeatedly denounces his intellectual adversaries as paid lackeys of established interests. It is an ugly slur, and it smacks of the very hypocrisy he professed to despise. One might repay it by accusing Galbraith of reaping the significant psychic rewards of courageous dissent while avoiding any of its customary social or professional risks. For the awkward truth is that he, not his adversaries, enjoyed spectacular success, including financially, while telling the elite things they wanted to hear that have not stood the test of time.

For instance, his central claim that giant corporations had acquired so much economic power they could now shape consumers’ desires instead of having to respond to them and thus were no longer vulnerable to competitive challenges. In discussing the passing of what he calls Big Unit America, Michael Barone says, “Like many prophets, Galbraith did a better job of describing the recent past than of forecasting the near future.” (To say Wal-Mart and Microsoft prove Galbraith right, as Parker does, is fatuous: They became big by succeeding, not the other way around.) Woe betide the CEO, or politician, who complacently accepted Galbraith’s conventional wisdom about the unassailable position of the corporate “technostructure.”

Tried and failed remedies

For that reason he cannot escape some blame for the conspicuous failure of political liberalism in late 20th-century America. His remedies were tried and failed. That is why they were supplanted not by some newer and even trendier vision but by the return of the Gods of the Copybook Headings in the form of distinctly pre-Keynesian economics that had indeed told him so.

Shortly after his famous complaint about “private affluence and public squalor” a critic shot back, “His solution: extend public squalor.” And it was adopted; in the mid-1960s Galbraith said there was “nothing wrong with New York that doubling the city budget wouldn’t solve” but by 1990, when the city’s budget had tripled, its public spaces were unbearably squalid.

Galbraith never dealt properly with the classical explanation of why “everybody’s business is nobody’s business” and for a man notoriously skeptical of existing uses of power, he was remarkably sanguine about the benign uses to which the state would put the even greater power he wanted to give it. He, and Parker, have nothing useful to say about recent “public choice” analysis of government failure. Yet the failure of big government to function as liberals expected is a major part of the story of our times.

An even bigger part is the perceived failure of American liberalism to deal sensibly with national security. And here Galbraith presents a sympathetic reviewer with real problems; he visited Nazi Germany in 1938 and discussed land reform, a topic Parker calls “odd to say the least,” adding “One might imagine that Galbraith was filled with repugnance and horror at what he saw. But in fact he had no outspoken reaction at the time.” Visiting Red China during the Cultural Revolution’s mad massacres, Galbraith wrote: “Dissidents are brought firmly into line in China but one suspects with great politeness.” And he famously said in 1984: “Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” Galbraith, to put it bluntly, was soft on tyranny. And any analytic framework that calls the Soviet economy a success in the 1980s and the American economy a failure deserves more skepticism than Parker musters.

Richard Parker has given Galbraith a suitably sympathetic if slightly over-long biography. Regrettably, both subject and biography are obtuse on what went wrong with modern American liberalism, and on the extent to which its faults are John Kenneth Galbraith’s writ even larger.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

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