Capitalism Without Tears

John Kenneth Galbraith has not enjoyed the regard of his fellow economists to anything like the degree that he has enjoyed the acclaim of the public. Indeed, to a substantial number of economists, particularly those of the conservative and prestigious “Chicago school,” his name is very nearly anathema. One of the deans of this school saw fit this winter to write an editorial column for The New York Times, the only purpose of which seemed to be to attack Galbraith. The authors of a recent textbook found it useful to include as a student exercise a quotation from “an economist serving as American ambassador to India,” instructing the student to “Explain why every sentence of that quotation—except the third and fourth—is wrong, non-sensical, or irrelevant.” A colleague of mine, discussing a list of books that might be useful for a graduate seminar in Political Economics, simply shrugged off American Capitalism and The Affluent Society as works that serious people could not take seriously.

This virtual rejection of Galbraith by his peers1 is offset only by their general admiration for his style, even when, as is often the case, they are the objects of its shafts.

Corporate executives with an over acute sense of persecution [Galbraith writes] have sometimes supposed that economists, in the ideas they advance, are their enemies. In fact, the economics profession is strongly in the service of the beliefs they most need. It would, prima facie, be plausible to set a limit on the national product that a nation requires. The test of economic achievement would then be how rapidly it could reduce the number of hours of toil that are needed to meet this requirement. Were economists to advocate this goal, with the revolutionary effects that it would have on the industrial system, there would be grounds for complaint. None have been so uncooperative.

There are few economists who will not wince at these sentences, and fewer still who would not like to write their rejoinders in prose as cutting.

Yet I think the academic critics are wrong on both counts. To my mind, Galbraith is an economist of considerable merits, who seeks to infuse economics with a social relevance that is, on the whole, egregiously missing from most of its current output, particularly from that of the Chicago school. At the same time, I believe that the celebrated style, far from being an expression of Galbraith’s power and boldness, is in fact his fatal weakness.

I shall return to the matter of style in due course. Meanwhile, The New Industrial State comes as an interesting out-growth of Galbraith’s previous books. In all of them Galbraith has been wrestling with a major problem of great difficulty, although, alas, of little interest to most economists. This has been to find a systematic explanation for the way in which American capitalism operated in fact, rather than an explanation of how it was supposed to operate in theory. To put it differently, he has been searching…

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