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Monday, April 10, 2017

John Kenneth Galbraith and modern liberalism


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, Hans van Djik (Anefo)


John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was an influential economist best known for his support for liberal economic policies. In 2006, the Economist said,


"For several of those decades, Galbraith - much to the chagrin of his academic colleagues - could claim to be the best-known economist in the world. His books, more than 40 of them, were spectacularly successful. All this made him an extraordinary public intellectual... In many eyes, and perhaps his own, Galbraith was America's Great Liberal Economist, the intellectual heir to John Maynard Keynes, whose contributions to economics are underappreciated by a profession obsessed with mathematical formulae."


The rest of this post is some quotes regarding Galbraith.


Philosophy of economics


"I have long felt that there's no economic proposition that can't be stated in clear, accessible language." (Booknotes Interview, 1994)


"Do not be alarmed by simplification, complexity is often a device for claiming sophistication, or for evading simple truths." (The Age of Uncertainty, 1977)


"Economics, so long as it is thus taught, becomes, however unconsciously, a part of the arrangement by which the citizen or student is kept from seeing how he or she is, or will be, governed." (Power and the Useful Economist, 1973)


"The decisive weakness in neoclassical and neo-Keynesian economics is not the error in the assumptions by which it elides the problem of power. The capacity for erroneous belief is very great, especially where it coincides with convenience. Rather, in eliding power — in making economics a nonpolitical subject — neoclassical theory destroys its relation to the real world. In that world, power is decisive in what happens. And the problems of that world are increasing both in number and in the depth of their social affliction. In consequence, neoclassical and neo-Keynesian economics is relegating its players to the social sidelines where they either call no plays or use the wrong ones. To change the metaphor, they manipulate levers to which no machinery is attached." (Power and the Useful Economist, 1973)


"It is my guiding confession that I believe the greatest error in economics is in seeing the economy as a stable, immutable structure." (A Journey Through Economic Time, 1994)


Support for liberal economic policies


"We can safely abandon the doctrine of the eighties, namely that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had much." (Quoted in the Guardian, 1991)


"In recent times no problem has been more puzzling to thoughtful people than why, in a troubled world, we make such poor use of our affluence." (The Affluent Society, 1958)


"The drive toward complex technical achievement offers a clue to why the US is good at space gadgetry and bad at slum problems." (Quoted in The Saturday Evening Post, 1968)


"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." (Interview with Rupert Cornwell, 2002)


Legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith


Amartya Sen:

"He doesn't get enough praise. The Affluent Society is a great insight, and has become so much a part of our understanding of contemporary capitalism that we forget where it began. It's like reading Hamlet and deciding it's full of quotations." (Last of the old style liberals, 2008)


Bradford Delong:

"If there were justice in the world, John Kenneth Galbraith would rank as the twentieth century’s most influential American economist. He has published several books that are among the best analyses of modern US history , played a key role in midcentury policymaking, and advised more presidents and senators than would seem possible in three lifetimes. Yet today, Galbraith’s influence on economics is small, and his influence on US politics is receding by the year." (Sisyphus as Social Democrat, 2005)


Bradford Delong:

"Would economics as a discipline be stronger if the 50-year-old and 30-year-old economists had a better appreciation of Galbraith? Almost surely. Will the winds of economic fashion shift and cause economists to appreciate Galbraith once again? For that to happen, an astute young economist would have to devote himself to 'mathing up' chapters of The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State and publishing them in journals - not a likely prospect in today's risk-adverse academic environment." (Sisyphus as Social Democrat, 2005)


Lionel Robbins:

"I knew Galbraith in the old days; he sat for some little time in my seminar. I must say I am not altogether surprised at what has happened; for I have always thought him a dull fellow, well intentioned enough, but a sort of pedant of New Deal economics - just the kind of man to upset the business community without himself bringing any startling administrative ability to offset the loss of that which he had antagonized." (The Wartime Diaries of Lionel Robbins & James Meade 1943–1945, 1990)


Paul Krugman:

"The contrast between public and professional perception became particularly acute in 1967, when Galbraith made a grand statement of his ideas about economics in The New Industrial State, a book that he hoped would come to be regarded as being in the same league as John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory or even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The book was rapturously reviewed in the popular press, but it met with indifference from the academics. Galbraith’s book wasn’t what they considered real economic theory. Not incidentally, the academics were right in believing that The New Industrial State could be safely ignored." (Peddling Prosperity, 1994)