John Kenneth Galbraith, R.I.P.

George Will

5/4/2006 12:05:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last week in his 98th year, has been justly celebrated for his wit, fluency, public-spiritedness and public service, which extended from New Deal Washington to India, where he served as U.S. ambassador. Like two Harvard colleagues -- historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sen. Pat Moynihan, another ambassador to India -- Galbraith was among liberalism's leading public intellectuals, yet he was a friend and skiing partner of William F. Buckley. After one slalom down a Swiss mountain, inelegantly executed by the 6-foot-8 Galbraith, Buckley asked how long Galbraith had been skiing. Thirty years, he said. Buckley mischievously replied: About as long as you have been an economist.

Galbraith was an adviser to presidents (John Kennedy, a former student, and Lyndon Johnson) and presidential aspirants (Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy). His book "The Affluent Society," published in 1958, was a milestone on liberalism's transformation into a doctrine of condescension. And into a minority persuasion.

In the 1950s, liberals were disconsolate. Voters twice rejected the intelligentsia's pinup, Stevenson, in favor of Dwight Eisenhower, who elicited a new strain in liberalism -- disdain for average Americans. Liberals dismissed the Eisenhower administration as "the bland leading the bland." They said New Dealers had been supplanted by car dealers. How to explain the electorate's dereliction of taste? Easy. The masses, in their bovine simplicity, had been manipulated, mostly by advertising, particularly on television, which by 1958 had become the masses' entertainment.

Intellectuals, that herd of independent minds, were, as usual, in lock step as they deplored "conformity." Fear of that had begun when the decade did, with David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd" (1950), which was followed by C. Wright Mills' "White Collar" (1951), Sloan Wilson's novel "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1955), William Whyte's "The Organization Man" (1956) and Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders" (1957).

Galbraith brought to the anti-conformity chorus a special verve in depicting Americans as pathetic, passive lumps, as manipulable as clay. Americans were what modern liberalism relishes -- victims, to be treated as wards of a government run by liberals. It never seemed to occur to Galbraith and like-minded liberals that ordinary Americans might resent that depiction and might express their resentment with their votes.

Advertising, Galbraith argued, was a leading cause of America's "private affluence and public squalor." By that he meant Americans' consumerism, which produced their deplorable reluctance to surrender more of their income to taxation, trusting government to spend it wisely.

If advertising were as potent as Galbraith thought, the advent of television -- a large dose of advertising, delivered to every living room -- should have caused a sharp increase in consumption relative to savings. No such increase coincided with the arrival of television, but Galbraith, reluctant to allow empiricism to slow the flow of theory, was never a martyr to Moynihan's axiom that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.

Although Galbraith coined the phrase "conventional wisdom," and thought of himself as the scourge of groupthink, "The Affluent Society" was the distilled essence of the conventional wisdom on campuses. In the 1960s, that liberalism became a stance of disdain, describing Americans not only as Galbraith had, as vulgar, but also as sick, racist, sexist, imperialist, etc. Again, and not amazingly, voters were not amused when told that their desires -- for big cars, neighborhood schools and other things -- did not deserve respect.

But for liberals that was precisely the beauty of Galbraith's theory. If advertising could manufacture demands for whatever corporations wanted to supply, there was no need to respect markets, which bring supply and demand into equilibrium.

"The Affluent Society" was the canonical text of modern liberalism's disparagement of the competence of the average American. This liberalism -- the belief that people are manipulable dolts who need to be protected by their liberal betters from exposure to "too much" advertising -- is one rationale for McCain-Feingold. That law regulating campaigns embodies the political class' belief that it knows just the right amount of permissible political speech.

Of course if advertising really could manufacture consumer wants willy-nilly, few new products would fail. But many do. "The Affluent Society," postulating the awesome power of manufacturers to manufacture whatever demand they find it convenient to satisfy, was published nine months after Ford Motor Co. put all of its marketing muscle behind a new product, the Edsel.

Small wonder that a conservative wit has surmised that the wisdom of economists varies inversely with their heights. Milton Friedman, 93, is 5 feet tall.