Machan's Musings—Galbraith's Obituary Distortions

removed's picture
Submitted by removed on Mon, 2006-05-01 08:39

Not even the obituaries can be trusted now. Having been told of the death of John Kenneth Galbraith, the famed socialist economist—who taught at Harvard University for most of his life and was once John Kennedy’s ambassador to India—I read his obituary in The New York Times (both print and on line) and on several Web sites, including, via my Hotmail account.

I have been following the works of Galbraith for many years, since the 1960s after his The Affluent Society was published in 1958 in which, among other things, he aired his oft-reprinted attack on advertising. This is the piece that presented the view that ads produce desires in us which we then must satisfy, thus becoming addicted to products and services we do not need and taking resources from important public projects and diverting them into the coffers of greedy corporations. It is also where Lyndon Johnson’s idea of the Great Society, following such previous utopian statist experiments as FDR’s New Deal and JFK’s New Frontier, got its send up.

Galbraith was one of the most prominent and widely published defenders of a form of socialism dubbed in political economic circles as “democratic.” Although he was always easier on the Soviet Union’s version of centrally planned, dictatorial socialism than even some other democratic socialists, Galbraith was more eager to promote the notion—a very simple, even dogmatic one—that capitalism is captive to corporate greed and that the government must barge in to rescue us from this insidious, wild beast in the market place. This was his eruditely produced but ultimately boring mantra in nearly every one of his essays and books.

But none of the obituaries made any mention of Galbraith the socialist. Instead every one I read called him a liberal. Why?

In America and some other countries the term “liberal” used to refer to someone who advocated individual liberty, including free trade—the liberty to engage in voluntary economic exchanges without anyone allowed to intrude, be it a criminal or a cop. But during the 19th century the meaning of “liberal” has been changed by theorists who saw how much favor a policy gained when regarded as liberal, never mind that theirs wasn’t at all the genuine article but in fact a mercantilist or socialist pretender.

There was, however, one bit of intellectual support for this: sometimes we do use “liberty” or “freedom” in the sense in which such folks mean it, namely, to come to be rid of impediments to our actions. “I am free of this headache, finally,” or “He is now at liberty to by that home.” And that notion rests on having obtained the support or resources whereby the headache was overcome and the home could be purchased, never mind whence they came.

So it became kosher to say that someone who wants the government to steal from Peter to enable Paul to get rid of his headache or buy a home is, well, a liberal, a supporter of a certain sort of liberty or freedom, very different from what used to be meant by “liberal.” All sorts of statists jumped at the chance to call themselves liberals henceforth, thus eschewing the dirty word “socialist” which came to be associated with dictatorial regimes such as the Soviet Union.

This was essentially a ruse—these liberals, including Galbraith, advocated massive government intervention into the lives of citizens, with the delusional belief in how pure of heart and bright of mind politicians and bureaucrats are, in comparison to you and me and the rest of us simple and mean blokes doing work in markets. Not one of the obituaries, however, pointed this out about Galbraith but made him out to be a grand champion of human liberty, an unqualified liberal!

Well, when even obituary writers join in on the distortion of the news so as to support a political agenda such as whitewashing the record of an avid fan of government supremacy, we are in deep trouble. Especially when not long after the fall of the Soviet Union that avid fan actually admitted that capitalism is superior to socialism.

When Galbraith was asked in October 1995 about capitalism, he said “I do not believe that there are any radical alternatives, but there are correctives. The only alternative, socialism, that is the alternative to the market economy, has failed. The market system is here to stay."

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The dead

Kenny's picture

There is a general view that you should not speak ill of the dead. In Galbraith's case, we should make an exception. Mind you, I do regret his death - I regret that it did not come sooner - much sooner! The world would have been a happier and more prosperous place to live.

I remember...

Ross Elliot's picture

...reading The Affluent Society as a kid. And I remember turning up my nose; my nascent sense of life detecting something smelly; something akin to an old whore plying her trade in a nice neighbourhood.

I was right.

I remember ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... Galbraith visiting NZ when I was a kid. In a TV interview he was asked about laissez-faire (this at a time when NZ was awash in regulation & central planning). He simply snickered dismissively & waved his interviewer on to the next question. Typical snide snobby academic pseud.

Great quote at the end,

Ross Elliot's picture

Great quote at the end, Tibor. That's obviously how the old liberal, psuedo-intellectuals of the 60s now regard the economic sphere. Their wet-boy, socialism, didn't quite have the chops (and they *still* haven't worked out why) so they've turned to fascism allied to environmentalism and the grand catch-all concept of "public safety". They now see themselves as zookeepers to that nasty beast, capitalism.

Of course, they (& more importantly us) will be hoist by their own petard. The socialist can't leave well-enough alone. They have to meddle, fiddle & scheme to satisfy their own vanity & misanthropy. No grand Marxist vision anymore, just a slow turning of the screws.

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