More than anyone else I can think of, including the late Hubert Humphrey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., George McGovern, and James McGregor Burns, among others, John Kenneth Galbraith is the nearly perfect exemplar of American liberalism as we have come to know it since World War II. No one else comes close to Galbraith in the exquisite fit of his mind and its limitations to the essential theme and the varied idols of the liberal cause in our times. He is the very model for those now in school or college who want to do good things on the grand scale, and also to do well in life.

Galbraith is not and never will be noted as an economist, save among non-economists of liberal persuasion—journalists, television producers, social workers, book reviewers, and sundry others. This fact seems not to bother him at all—on the contrary, it provides further evidence of his superiority over the Mises, the Hayeks, the Friedmans, Haberlers, and Fellners of this world, whom he characterizes as archaists, worshippers of dead bones, and obfuscators all. For Galbraith the whole truth about economics lies at midpoint in a triangle formed by the names of Marx, Veblen, and Keynes. Although there is little evidence of Marxist writ in his recently published autobiography1—apart from dedicated opposition to the system of free private enterprise and a certain fondness for genteel socialism—nevertheless individual Marxists, from his graduate-school days onward, seem to have excited Galbraith’s most devoted encomiums.

Many, including Galbraith himself, have commented extravagantly upon the grace of his style. Yet it cannot escape the attentive reader of Galbraith’s prose that the patterning of words means more to him than the fusion of words to thoughts, experiences, and emotions, which is the true test of style. This can make for the kind of writing we associate with Weltschmerz, with fin de siècle, but not with enduring, memorable, or evocative literature.

His book takes us many places, starting with his birthplace in rural Ontario, to Berkeley as a graduate student, to Washington (over and over and over), Harvard, London, New Delhi, the Soviet Union, and a score of other locales. In most of them he was either one of the movers and shakers or else was closely positioned to them. There are many portraits in the book. That of Henry Luce is quite good; so is that of Adlai Stevenson who, we find, was anything but the high-toned ditherer of popular impression; the chapters on both JFK and LBJ are disappointing, more nearly stages on which Galbraith may posture than serious inquiries or reflections. The best single portrait in the entire book, notwithstanding the fact that the author intended it so, is of Galbraith himself. This, for any who wish to go and do likewise, makes A Life in Our Times valuable reading.

He has been many things: farmer (detesting every moment of it), student, professor, bureaucrat, ambassador, adviser and speech writer to Presidents, editor (at Fortune), author, lecturer, and economist. But what he has been longest and most tenaciously is a practicing liberal, committed from earliest years to the eradication of as much of the free private enterprise system as possible, and to the kinds of concentration of political power necessary to achieve that end. For only through such power can the limitless complexities of human society be given some degree of rationalization and centralized planning. The third chapter of the book is titled “First Glimpse of Grandeur.” It is not about Athens or Rome but, believe it or not, the Department of Agriculture when the young Galbraith visited it for the first time in the 1930’s, in the early days of the New Deal.

No wonder, then, that Galbraith found Harvard insufferably dull and drear when he reported, after a summer of all this grandeur, to his first teaching job. There was nothing that Harvard could do to or for Galbraith beyond boring him—or at least causing him to retreat from its society. Graduate work at Berkeley and a summer in Washington had brought his passion for political power and for centralized, welfare government to a temper that would be proof against all subsequent experience. If he learned little thereafter, he forgot nothing.



By Galbraith’s reckoning, there is precious little that would not be improved by its nationalization, or at least by its subjection to centralized planning from Washington. Thus, no Catholic theologian called to the Sacred College ever had a more ecstatic reaction than did Galbraith when he was called to work under that master economic czar, Leon Henderson, who headed the Office of Price Administration (OPA) in World War II. For Galbraith, as he freely admits, the real war was not the one fought with heavy casualties in the Gilberts, Marianas, and at the Normandy landing. It was, rather, the war between the evangels of light from the New Deal and the minions of Lucifer from the dark world of free private enterprise.

Reading Galbraith’s fervent passages on the great deeds he and others of the briefcase brigade accomplished in the war years, I find myself thinking of a new version of von Clausewitz’s celebrated apothegm on war. Mine reads: war is the continuation of social policy by other means. In truth, an occasional war has a tonic effect upon bureaucracy, and Congress—at least in the past—has never been so indulgent about the social budget as when there has been an increasing military budget. At one point Galbraith laments the ease with which liberals and the military became congenial during the war, but he has little trouble mastering his grief. The potential booty was just too tempting.

No amount of negative evidence disturbs Galbraith’s belief in the joys of bureaucracy, or faith in such a monstrosity as OPA, with tens of thousands of sham giants and real pygmies putting prices on everything from hemorrhoid-soothers to tractors for the farms, or his delight in the thought of millions of inverted Micawbers (Chesterton’s phrase, I believe) waiting tirelessly for something to turn down. True, Galbraith waxes wroth at the wartime memory of gamy businessmen and venal politicians who swarmed in like locusts, but he is serenely oblivious to the very real prospect that political planning and management of the economy are precisely calculated to exercise an irresistibly magnetic attraction upon these many and noisome pests.



The fact is that Galbraith’s mind seems ruled by what the late psychologist, Leon Festinger, called the principle of cognitive dissonance. Festinger had been attracted by such religious groups as the Millerites in mid-19th-century America. On the one hand, they believed devoutly in the imminent ending of the world and actually gave precise dates. On the other hand, as we know, the world did not end. Result: all the greater tenacity, even passion, of belief by the Millerites. There can be, in sum, an iron inverse relation between doggedness of faith and what evidence reveals.

So with Galbraith. The greater the record of failure, disorganization, erosion, and collapse, the stronger the faith in the measures which brought on disaster. No one, I assume, but Galbraithians needs to be told that the inflation now raging and tearing into our social fabric is in substantial measure the direct product of the wildly reckless piling of huge social deficits, in the interest of what was called “compassion,” upon the equally huge deficits caused by our ill-conceived, ill-fated entry into Vietnam. And no one but a Galbraithian needs to be told that a chief reason for the calamitous breakdown of our normal social and psychological controls—those intrinsic to family, school, neighborhood, community, and voluntary association—during the last few years is the prior invasion of these social strucures by the “federal bulldozer.”

Democracy succeeds only through what may be called pre-democratic strata of association, and when a misguided democracy, or rather its misguided government, ravages these “inns and resting places of the human spirit,” as Edmund Burke called them, their natural restraints over human beings, and especially the young, will not last long. How can they? In many ways the moral inflation caused by the ideas and policies so doggedly advanced by people like Galbraith through the last several decades is worse than the financial. Through tracts like Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, expectations multiplied and grew grander, ever harder to gratify. Restraints crumbled. The result was a social and moral chaos, reflected in the exponentially rising number of security guards, security dogs, alarm systems, and, of course, handguns. As the Galbraithian state waxes, the moral order wanes.



Galbraith is plainly peevish at the amount of success which the doctrines of free-sector economists have recently enjoyed. He regards such doctrines as the “conventional wisdom,” oblivious to the fact that the real “conventional wisdom” of the past half-century, beginning with the New Deal, to be found in most of the schools and colleges and editorial offices in the nation, is, in a word, Galbraithism. To be a Friedmanite in the period 1950-70 on any college campus took raw courage.

Galbraith’s attack on such as Hayek, Friedman, and Haberler concentrates in part on the proposition that the free competition they celebrate and defend is anyway a sham. He proved, did he not, in his New Industrial State that such competition as there is in America is more or less mom-and-pop in significance, and without visible effect upon the corporate giants? Besides, look what horrors are perpetrated by the myth of free enterprise. From The Affluent Society, he cites again a passage by which he is still charmed:

The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked car out for a tour, passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art. . . . They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air-mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?

No, would say the vast majority of American people, millions of whom have actually had the experience of taking such a tour, again and again. My guess is that the only “unevenness” Galbraith’s tour group in Never-Land might experience as they explore the Adirondacks, Appalachians, Rockies, and the Sierra, as they boat and fish in literally thousands of lakes, streams, rivers, and coastal areas, as they camp in the tens of millions of acres of forested land into which even the cleanest of fuel and mineral explorers may not venture, is the discrepancy between what they want and like as against the Galbraithian conviction of what they should want and like.



Indeed, the main target of Galbraith’s famous wit is the bumpkins, yokels, and knaves who together give America its GNP. The other main targets are rival economists who are so unsophisticated as to see merit in a private sector, and all the other reactionaries he encountered in his years as a professor and who even, we are here told, worked against his rise to professorship at Harvard and his nomination for president of the American Economic Association. He is not, I regret to say, as good on the academic as the political-bureaucratic world. The reason is that although you can occasionally take Galbraith out of the government, you can’t take government out of Galbraith. Thus, whether it is Berkeley or Harvard or Princeton, we receive nothing much more than politics, that is, national and international politics. The interesting and good people are either Marxists or Keynesians; other faculty range from the ignorant to the fatuous with only the occasional exception, such as Joseph Schumpeter, a leading light when Galbraith went to Harvard.

Galbraith liked Berkeley, where he spent the early 1930’s as a graduate student, but it must have been simply as a lovely campus setting, for most of his chapter on that experience is given to putting reactionaries in proper pillory and stock. One would never guess that in this decade Berkeley finally reached the top among universities in the world; it was a decade in which such presences as Lawrence and Oppenheimer were well along in their revolutionary scientific work, and known for that to all on the campus (or almost all, thinking of Galbraith); in which the likes of Kroeber, Lowie, Tolman, Teggart, and Bolton were doing their most exciting work and offering renowned classes and seminars. The best Galbraith can recall from his few years at Berkeley is one Robert Merriman, a teaching assistant who was later to join the Spanish Civil War and become the prototype of Hemingway’s hero, Robert Jordan, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. By the time he had left Berkeley and taken up his first post in Washington, at the Agriculture Department, “the most prestigious of my California contemporaries were Communists.” So much for Berkeley.



On Harvard he is even worse. He titles his early chapter “Harvard Before Democracy.” Let the Kittredges, Bridgmans, Schumpeters, McIlwains, Hendersons, and Whiteheads take that! Of the famed Henderson and Whitehead colloquies and seminars, which affected the most diverse of faculty and students, we learn nothing from Galbraith, quite content with his reactionaries and retarded minds in the economics department. In melancholy accents he tells of how Theodore H. White, an undergraduate at the time, was crippled by lack of democracy. This is not the impression conveyed by White’s own long chapter on his Harvard days in his book, In Search of History, which teems with joys and discoveries and earned rewards.

In one place, though, Galbraith is unintendedly hilarious. We learn that just prior to the student uprisings at Harvard in the middle and late 60’s, Galbraith, by now back from several more years in government service, tried vainly to apprise the university of just what was wrong with it so far as the lives of students were concerned. To no avail; no one would listen. The result, Galbraith tells us righteously, was the perdition the university deserved. We are not, however, made privy to the advice that Galbraith sought to offer. What did he know, and when did he know it? That is the question that would haunt anyone involved from 1963 on in the Student Wars. And even if Harvard chose invincible ignorance, could not Galbraith have yielded up his secrets to his friend and fellow economist Clark Kerr, so sorely beset out at Berkeley?



The humor becomes delicious when it is remembered that what the student Left was turning its guns on was, in a word, Galbraithism! Unlike their less sophisticated predecessors in the history of student radicalism, they were not after the archaic capitalism of McKinley or Coolidge vintage. They were after liberalism (how the New Left hated liberals), old socialism, the regulated, bureaucratic, corporate variant of the welfare state, replete with big (and hated) unions, the kind of liberalism that the New Deal had inaugurated and that the New Frontier and Great Society brought to maturity. This was the real enemy of the student Left, which anathematized Washington bureaucracy, fair or foul, in exactly the same way it did corporate board rooms.

Galbraith seems to be under the impression that the so-called student revolutions in the 1960’s were primarily responses to academic conditions; he could not be more wrong. For the New Left the campus was useful solely as a launching-pad for revolution; the issue of college life was just so much easy camouflage.

But Galbraith’s insights are often befuddled or else muddied by liberal dogma. In 1948, I have learned from a distinguished economist, Galbraith, reacting to the bold and brilliant relaxation of controls by German economics minister Ludwig Erhard, the prelude to West Germany’s extraordinary economic recovery, wrote: “There never has been the slightest possibility of getting German recovery by this wholesale repeal of controls and regulations.” Keynes was great enough to admit that rarely has “modernist stuff gone wrong and turned sour and silly” so quickly. Not Galbraith. In this book, Erhard’s feat is made one-half accident and one-half yield of prior intercessions in the economy by a pair of American (and no doubt Keynesian) bureaucrat-economists. Once again, Galbraithian cognitive dissonance, and also churlishness.



Galbraith tells us that he is hanging up his spikes, to sit from now on in the grandstand. So be it. There will be less joy in Mudville. But I think I do see another memoir issuing from this one, and I may have a title for it. Many years ago a Harvard English scholar, Bliss Perry, wrote a perfectly delightful book titled And Gladly Teach. That would not be right for Galbraith, but how about And Gladly Plan?

1 A Life in Our Times, Houghton Mifflin, 563 pp., $16.95.

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