A capacity for incomprehension amounting almost to genius

The Galbraith Revival

A Canadian university recently asked me to deliver its annual John Kenneth Galbraith Lecture, named for the economist who for much of my youth was the most famous member of his profession in the world. His books sold by the million and were available everywhere in cheap paperback editions; titles such as American Capitalism and The Affluent Society were known to almost all educated people. A teacher at Princeton, Cambridge, and Harvard, he was the editor for a time of Fortune and the American ambassador to India. He was also the first economist to be widely known on television, not least through his sparring with William F. Buckley, Jr. (a close personal friend). His omnipresence as the voice of economics was both the result and the cause of a whole climate of opinion.

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There remains, however, an astonishingly gaping absence in Galbraith’s worldview. While he is perfectly able to see the defects of businessmen—their inclination to megalomania, greed, hypocrisy, and special pleading—he is quite unable to see the same traits in government bureaucrats. It is as if he has read, and taken to heart, the work of Sinclair Lewis, but never even skimmed the work of Kafka.

Galbraith’s epistemology is, in fact, neo-Marxian. Just as Marx famously wrote that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness,” Galbraith explains resistance to higher taxation thus: “It is the nature of privileged position that it develops its own political justification and often the economic and social doctrine that serves it best.” In other words, men—except for Marx and Galbraith—believe what it is in their interest to believe. It is hardly surprising that Galbraith always writes as if what he says is revealed truth and counterarguments are the desperate, last-ditch efforts of the self-interested and corrupt.

Galbraith never solved, or even appeared to notice, the mystery of how he himself could see through self-interest and arrive at disinterested truth. In general, his self-knowledge was severely limited. In the introduction to Journey to Poland and Yugoslavia (1958), he writes that “the publishing industry is sustained by authors who are busily plagiarizing themselves.” Yet few authors of nonfiction are more repetitive than Galbraith, down to the very locutions he uses and the anecdotes he tells. To have read three books by Galbraith is to have read ten times as many. He is like the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, using repetition as independent confirmation of the truth of what he says.

There is, of course, a deep psychological tension in Galbraith. He always talks about the rich as though he were not one of them; but the impoverished rarely spend their winters at Gstaad, Switzerland, as he did.

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Here we reach the heart of the matter. Galbraith’s thinking about social and economic matters was always de haut en bas; his solutions emerged from the Olympian heights of his own ratiocination, to be applied to the clueless multitudes below. (No doubt his own great height, over 6 foot 8, accustomed him to looking down on people.) His literary style is symptomatic of his attitude, a true case of the style being the man himself. Hundreds of times, he uses question-begging locutions that intimidate with their orotund grandeur. […]

The cumulative effect is to intimidate those who believe themselves not well enough informed to contradict so high an authority. […] What fool does not wish to be on the side of the inevitable? Who does not want to recognize what has so long been recognized? Who dares to deny that what the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics says three times is true?

Galbraith’s egotism and condescension toward most of the human race is evident in his admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt—or rather, in the grounds for that admiration. Here he is in the preface to Name-Dropping, a singularly uninformative book of reminiscences of the great whom he met: “I turn now to Franklin Roosevelt, the first and in many ways the greatest of those I encountered over a lifetime. And the one, more than incidentally, who accorded me the most responsibility.” I think you would have to have a pretty tough carapace of self-regard not to recognize the absurdity of this, or to have the gall to commit it to print.

At another point, Galbraith writes that Roosevelt saw the United States “as a vast estate extended out from his family home at Hyde Park, New York. For this he had responsibility, and particularly for the citizens and workers thereon.” A tree-planting program that Roosevelt initiated in the Plains states, for instance, was “the reaction of a great landlord, an obvious step to improve appearance and property values, a benign action for the tenantry.” Galbraith meant this as praise, which is not surprising, because his own attitude toward the country was similar. The people were sheep, and government, with Galbraith as advisor, was the shepherd.

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The main function of what Galbraith writes is to minimize the horrors of Communism, upon which he has hardly a word.

Fifteen years later, in 1973, Galbraith went to China—in the slipstream of President Nixon, as it were—and wrote A China Passage. This was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, in which perhaps a million people died and tens of millions were horribly persecuted, and only a few years after the greatest man-made famine in human history. Nevertheless, Galbraith quotes the Sinologist John K. Fairbanks, who wrote as if he had learned his style directly from Galbraith himself: “The big generalizations are all agreed upon: There has been a tremendous betterment of the material life and morale of the common people.”

In light of the appalling suffering of the Cultural Revolution, Galbraith’s remarks often seem extremely callous. Time and again, he offers vignettes of the Cultural Revolution like this one: “The workers were rather proud of having confined their fighting to the morning. . . . Sadly some windows did get broken.” Thus Galbraith discusses the greatest episode of deliberate cultural vandalism of modern history, accompanied as it was by human cruelty on a gargantuan scale.

Later, Galbraith tells a story about how the Chinese farmed areas of low fertility: “We were told how one production brigade had transported soil for many miles to make one peculiarly rocky spread slightly productive.” According to Galbraith, the decline in agriculture in New England would not have taken place if politicians rather than market forces had been in charge. The moral of the story for Galbraith? “The market can be ruthless as politicians cannot.” That market relations can sometimes exact a human price is no doubt true; but to have lived through the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, and to suggest that there is any cruelty and depravity of which politicians are not capable, requires a capacity for incomprehension amounting almost to genius.

Let it not be said, however, that Galbraith was entirely uncritical of China during the Cultural Revolution. “At the close of almost every meeting one is asked for ‘your criticisms’ of the institution or the New China,” he recounts. “I’ve found one that is true, irrefutable and well-received. ‘You are smoking far too many cigarettes.’ ” Millions of people beaten, tortured, and humiliated, the remains of a millennial civilization wantonly smashed, and Galbraith bravely takes up the antismoking cause!

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You may read the whole thing here

My comment: both the epistemology and condescension described here as common in Mr. Galbraith are intrinsic to socialism. This is not a conclusion from first principles on my part, merely an observation from weary experience. No doubt the experiences of others may tell a different story.

The paramount concern of socialists seems to be to not be seen as wrong or any point, no matter how trivial. I propose this is the inevitable outcome of having an epistemology which is at its root mere argumentum ad hominem: for if one’s only answer to an opponent’s reasoning is to find some flaw, real or imagined, pertinent or not, with the opponent’s dignity, personality, motive, wits or education, then by the same token one’s only defense to one’s own unreasoning is to pretend flawlessness in one’s own dignity, personality, motive, wit and education — and hence to interpret any questioning of one’s facts or evidence as a question unfairly directed against one’s honor, an unforgivable interruption of the pretense of flawlessness.

To judge from my personal experience, socialism is not an economic theory at all. It is the mental disease of using discussions about economics as an opportunity for moral self-congratulation. Economists discuss the causes and effects of economic phenomena. Socialists discuss the Olympian moral superiority of socialists as contrasted to ignorance, self-deception and stupidity of all lesser men.