John Kenneth Galbraith, R.I.P.

Posted: May 02, 2006 8:05 PM
The public Galbraith I knew and contended with for many years is captured in the opening paragraphs of my review of his last book, "The Culture of Contentment." I wrote then:

It is fortunate for Professor Galbraith that he was born with singular gifts as a writer. It is a pity he hasn't used these skills in other ways than to try year after year to bail out his sinking ships. Granted, one can take satisfaction from his anti-historical exertions, and wholesome pleasure from his yeomanry as a sump-pumper. Indeed, his rhythm and grace recall the skills we remember having been developed by Ben-Hur, the model galley slave, whose only request of the quartermaster was that he be allowed every month to move to the other side of the boat, to ensure a parallel development in the musculature of his arms and legs.

I for one hope that the next time a nation experimenting with socialism or communism fails, which will happen the next time a nation experiments with socialism or communism, Ken Galbraith will feel the need to explain what happened. It's great fun to read. It helps, of course, to suppress wistful thought about those who endured, or died trying, the passage toward collective living to which Professor Galbraith has beckoned us for over 40 years.

So it is said, for the record; and yet we grieve, those of us who knew him. We looked to his writings for the work of a penetrating mind who turned his talent to the service of his ideals. This involved waging war against men and women who had, under capitalism, made strides in the practice of industry and in promoting the common good. Galbraith denied them the tribute to which they were entitled.

When they went further and offered their intellectual insights, Galbraith was unforgiving. His appraisal of intellectual dissenters from his ideas of the common good derived from the psaltery of his moral catechism, cataloguing the persistence of poverty, the awful taste of the successful classes, and the wastefulness of the corporate and military establishments.

Where Mr. Galbraith is not easily excusable is in his search for disingenuousness in such as Charles Murray, a meticulous scholar of liberal background, whose "Losing Ground" is among the social landmarks of the postwar era. "In the mid 1980s," Galbraith writes, "the requisite doctrine needed by the culture of contentment to justify their policies became available. Dr. Charles A. Murray provided the nearly perfect prescription. ... Its essence was that the poor are impoverished and are kept in poverty by the public measures, particularly the welfare payments, that are meant to rescue them from their plight." Whatever qualifications Murray made, "the basic purpose of his argument would be served. The poor would be off the conscience of the comfortable, and, a point of greater importance, off the federal budget and tax system."

One needs to brush this aside and dwell on the private life of John Kenneth Galbraith. I know something of that life, and of the lengths to which he went in utter privacy to help those in need. He was a truly generous friend. The mighty engine of his intelligence could be marshaled to serve the needs of individual students, students manque, people who had a problem.

Two or three weeks ago he sent me a copy of a poll taken among academic economists. He was voted the third most influential economist of the 20th century, after Keynes and Schumpeter. I think that ranking tells us more about the economics profession than we have any grounds to celebrate, but that isn't the point I made in acknowledging his letter. I had just received a book about the new prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, in which National Review and its founder are cited as the primary influences in his own development as a conservative leader. But I did not mention this to Galbraith either. He was ailing, and this old adversary kept from him loose combative data that would have vexed him.

I was one of the speakers at his huge 85th birthday party. My talk was interrupted halfway through by the master of ceremonies. "Is there a doctor in the house?" The next day I sent Galbraith the text of my talk. He wrote back: "Dear Bill: That was a very pleasant talk you gave about me. If I had known it would be so, I would not have instructed my friend to pretend, in the middle of your speech, to need the attention of a doctor."

Forget the whole thing, the getting and spending, and the Nobel Prize nominations, and the economists' tributes. What cannot be forgotten by those exposed to them are the amiable, generous, witty interventions of this man, with his singular wife and three remarkable sons, and that is why there are among his friends those who weep that he is now gone.