American Scold

Galbraith invented a modern archetype


It is tempting to string together a series of glib declarations from John Kenneth Galbraith's 50 years in public life, note their absurdities, and move on. That would be wrong on two counts. For one, five decades of wonkish fame buys you some wiggle room. And two, it would miss just how successful and influential Galbraith, the Canadian-born Harvard economist who influenced U.S. economic thinking for more than 60 years, was in defining the terms and style of debate on a host of policy issues.

Galbraith's style was not just to be certain of his views, but to be positively declarative, rejecting the very possibility of informed dissent. Assumptions should be as sweeping as possible so as to support the broadest possible conclusion. Take this perfect example from 1984: "Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower."

Let's unpack the assumptions. The Soviet Union was successful, on its own terms, a few years before its dissolution. Western capitalist countries were not, despite all the material wealth they possessed. And, finally, Soviet labor conscription and make-work constitute full-employment.

Buried in such heavily loaded rhetoric is the key to understanding Galbraith's legacy. He was not, in fact, an economist. Nor was he an "economic sociologist," as his New York Times obit put it while defending him from "the envious and antagonistic." Galbraith was a moralist and a strident one at that.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness," Galbraith declared. His 1958 book The Affluent Society indicted post-war American consumerism far beyond the stark utilitarian terms you might expect from FDR's former price-fixer general.

American society was not just poorly planned, it was wrong. It did not matter that the widespread privation of the previous century had passed or that the future promised ever-less back-breaking labor in exchange for the basic necessities. Galbraith found income inequality immoral. Income had to be large enough to buy "decency" on a relative scale or it was inadequate.

The echoes down to today's "living wage" movements in various American cities are fairly obvious, but Galbraith inspired a blowback with even greater implications. In 1962, Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom arrived essentially as a response to Galbraith's econo-moral critique of American society.

As Galbraith had used a thin veneer of Harvard econometrics to dispute and call into question the traditional conservative defensive line for a market economy, Hayek and the Austrian school, Friedman loaded up on government planners from the Great Depression on, charging them with causing more harm than good. The result was a dense policy playbook containing everything from school vouchers to the flat tax, and the limited government team has been running these plays ever since. Yet this playbook has only occasionally delivered victory. For that, credit Galbraith's most enduring legacy—the secular guilt-trip that questions every motive and denies every choice.

Back in 1973 Galbraith surmised that the "technostructure" of corporate managers actually manipulated consumer wants and desires. This was done primarily through deceptive advertising and outright misrepresentation, but manipulation of prices also created artificial scarcity and perceived luxury goods. People, in fact, do not really know what they want. Today this view has become so prevalent on both the left and right as to be unremarkable. Junk food, housing, transportation, clothing, entertainment, the news media—all create demands and impressions that consumers are largely powerless to overcome, much less to discern.

Desire a house in the suburbs with a nice yard? "You are just trying to keep score with a McMansion," comes the JKG refrain. Packed on an extra 20 pounds? "Agribusiness." Your 11-year-old wants belly shirt and heels? "Fashion industry." Think George Bush is a twit? "The networks."

It is a wonderfully tidy way to respond to all the abundant choice of modern America: Deny that it is choice at all.

Well played, John Kenneth. Well played.