J.K. Galbraith


JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH wanted to make not only his views but also his tone emphatically clear: "I consider myself a part of the liberal majority," he said in a recent interview at his home on Francis Avenue. And he obtains exactly the reaction he seeks, Liberal majority in the age of Reagan? Galbraith, intimidated neither by the President nor the latest news from Gallup, then proceeded to a lucid and convincing evocation of liberalism as the true doctrine of most Americans--"a pragmatic adjustment to circumstance"--and conservatism as the ideological dogma of unrealistic purists.

There are other liberals but few approach the subject in the style of Harvard's best-known faculty member. When stating his case, with regard to the current political climate or Vermont wildlife or psychiatric advice, Galbraith takes what he know to be his audience's assumptions and uses them to draw converts to his cause. This instinct, a sort of intellectual pass key, turns this economist into a writer.

Perhaps it is fitting that the Galbraithian phrase most permanently woven into the fabric over everyday life is "the conventional wisdom," which he defines as "the beliefs that are at any time assiduously, solemnly and mindlessly traded between the pretentiously wise." Galbraith's radar for the "conventional wisdom" always makes his observations ring with that extra measure of clarity. When he wrote in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books that "Solar energy attracts people with an indifferent commitment to personal hygience and a strong commitment to organic foods," the comment transcended mere economic analysis. Likewise, when, in his memoirs, he laments the loss of financial eminence of his colleagues-- "Harvard professors (now) disappear at night into the distant Boston outskirts, there to do engage in the suburban middle-class struggle with teen-age delinquency and crabgrass"--it explains more than the changed living arrangements of the Harvard faculty.

This sensitivity, moreover, comes from a more profound realization about the nature of man--that is, I believe, the universality of sin. Yet--and this is the joy of it--he does not despair of this admittedly grim concept, but rather accepts it with an enthusiastic recklessness. He does not excuse himself from his human burden. His memoirs present several outwardly damning facts about the author. But he faces squarely such problems as occasional reliance on sleeping pills or psychiatrists because, after all, no one can be expected to lead a life of unrelieved virtue. Certainly, the faults do not impinge upon Galbraith's fit-as-a-fiddle self-image; he notes, for example, that he has suffered from a life-long fear that arose not from being "more versatile, more diligent or perhaps more useful than my colleagues," but from the fear "that my superiority would not be recognized."

This acceptance of man's--and Galbraith's--flawed nature may have allowed such enthusaistic indulgence in the good life by a man committed to the concept of equality. Perhaps, he might concede, the lifestyle and the politics are a little inconsistent, but what good would living the ascetic life have done him or anyone else? He, not to mention his family and friends, are clearly better off with the farm in Vermont and the chalet in Gstaad. So Galbraith must see, and perhaps even relish, the irony of a sentence like the following from his memoirs: "In the next summer months in Switzerland--on the Lake of Lucerte at Sils-Maria, down at Brissago on Lago Maggiore (where Hemingway's lovers came ashore afte rowing up the lake) and at Saas Fee--I read and struggled to write on the causes of poverty.,"


The recognition of the man's fallen state has found its way into his work as well. The work of the classical economists, against whom Galbraith has labored long, is based on the Smithean premise that the cupidity of each man will contribute to the greater good of all. Now this assumption, as handy as it might be for the world's voracious strivers, presents a considerable affront to those who think greed is a bad thing, among whom, I suspect, is Galbraith. So while Adam Smith and his spirtual heirs, from Alfred Marshall to Milton Friedman to Arthur Laffer, contorted the concept of greed into a good thing, Galbraith said no; greed exists, and will ensure the production of privately produced goods, but society needs a counterforce to the less noble parts of man's character--a democratically elected government. In The Affluent Society, Galbraith pointed out that mere production of goods was not enough; we, as a society, should be concerned with what we produced. We might be better off, in fact, with fewer consumer goods and more "public" goods that provide service to all.

Galbraith elaborated on these ideas in The New Industrial State where he pointed out the obvious facts (obvious to him) at least that many of America's largest companies operated in great measure outside the supposedly "free" market and that they could exercise great power over prices, costs, technology, and consumer taste, while influencing government policy greatly. Galbraith defines a common purpose of people whose interests do not coincide with those of the corporations, who have needed large and powerful advocates also.

The bedrock of the Galbraithian economic vision is common sense: when something is wrong, make it right. Do not try to pretend that it is right. It has been about 73 years since Galbraith was born on his father's Ontario farm, but its marks on him can never be erased by time. His garb is now strictly Ivy League Professorial, yet, in repose, his thumbs seem naturally to stray to his lapels, in the classic farming pose. The wrists, dangling from his famed and still awesome longitude, still seem unnaturally powerful for one who has made a living with his wits. Though Galbraith spends much of the early part of his memoirs disparaging the vaunted practical gifts of his fellow farmers, he continues to share the farmer's insistence on results, not just rhetoric. This unadorned logic, combined with an almost Hawhtornean sense of the futility of such a search, makes for a sensitivity of unique understanding. We will never struggle selflessly and tirelessly for the common good, but we must move to because that, in the end, is all we can do.