February 3, 2010


The Galbraith Revival: The aristocratic economist’s big-government ideas are back in vogue. (Theodore Dalrymple, Winter 2010, City Journal)

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.

For example, the chapter entitled “The Bureaucratic Syndrome” in his book The Culture of Contentment refers only to bureaucracy in corporations (and in the one government department he despises, the military). Galbraith appears to believe in the absurd idea that bureaucrats administer tax revenues to produce socially desirable ends without friction, waste, or mistake. It is clearly beyond the range of his thought that government action can, even with the best intentions, produce harmful effects. For Galbraith, a dollar spent on, say, public education results in a dollar’s worth of educated person, virtually without deduction. Troubling evidence to the contrary—for example, the fact that Britain spends nearly $100,000 per child on public education, and yet a fifth of the population is unable to read with facility or do simple arithmetic—does not figure in his work; he always writes as if all would be well if only $200,000 were spent.

He should have known better. In his 1981 autobiography, A Life in Our Times, he recalls the way academics flocked to Washington at the beginning of the New Deal. “Word had . . . reached the university that a nearly unlimited number of jobs were open for economists at unbelievably high pay in the federal government,” he writes. “All the new agencies needed this talent. Students who had been resisting for years the completion of theses and the resulting unemployment now finished them up in weeks. Some did not even stop to do that. So a new gold rush began.” One might think that this would have opened his eyes to the vested interests of bureaucracy—to the possibility that large government programs might operate more for the interest of the apparatchiks than for that of the alleged beneficiaries. But it never did.

Nor did it change his ideas about the politics of taxation. Over and again in his work, Galbraith alludes with disdain to the resistance that the affluent mount to tax increases, insisting that they do so only out of self-interest and indifference to the fate of the poor. In The Good Society, for example, he writes that “the comfortably affluent resist public action for the poor because of the threat of increased taxes.” It is true, of course, that the well-to-do resist tax increases in large part because they do not want to give up what they have; practically no one likes to be deprived of what he has. But in light of the “gold rush” described above by Galbraith, is it not at least equally likely that those who propose tax increases do so in order to increase their own power and emoluments?

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. He accepts that enrichment can be licit, no doubt thinking primarily of his own; but his enrichment came about by advocating in best-selling books the governmental expropriation of the riches of others. This enabled him to maintain his image of himself as one of the moral elect, one of those generous souls among the rich whom he describes in The Good Society, patrons of the poor—who themselves “are largely without political voice except as they are supported and represented by the considerable number in the more fortunate brackets who feel and express concern.”

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. I open a book of his at random and find the following: “The controlling fact is”; “This trade-off is present in all accepted thought”; “Nor should one wish otherwise”; “It has now been adequately urged”; “This is not a matter of choice; it is the modern imperative”; “It would, of course, be a serious error”; “This has long been recognized”; “All of this is to be welcomed”; “The lesson is clear”; “The solution is not difficult; it has the advantage of inevitability.”

The cumulative effect is to intimidate those who believe themselves not well enough informed to contradict so high an authority. We are far from the realm of Jane Austen’s light and ironic “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” When J. K. Galbraith enunciates a truth universally acknowledged, he does not want us to smile inwardly; he wants us to fear not being included in le tout Paris of correct, generous, and humane thought.

Ironically, the Randian Right has the opposite blind spot, seeing only the problem with government power, not corporate.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 3, 2010 7:07 AM
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