In Memoriam: John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006)

By David Banerjee | May 20, 2006

As small children, we are the centre of our world. In fact, we are the centre of the world. We are the only valid focus of attention, the directors of all actions, and the owners of all we see.

An important part of childhood development is the progression from that infantile egocentrism towards greater collaboration and an understanding of the social world. In order to grow socially, however, children must also learn how to think abstractly, which enables them to see others points of view. Not only are the skills of perspective and contextuality a key component of our empathic instinct, they’re also necessary for simple coexistence. As human beings develop and mature they acquire a greater ability to cooperate; not only are they better able to resolve differences and problems with expanding intelligence and ability, but they are more willing to do so because they are able to relate to one another empathically .

From this developmental perspective, the new conservatism that has emerged in the last 30 years can be seen as a form of social retardation. The conservative economist Milton Friedman has suggested that our willingness to help each other is based on the “Neighbourhood Effect”, the idea that by helping one another we help ourselves.In his view, it is strictly self-interest to be good citizens, and we should limit our social responsibilities so that we do no more for others than will benefit ourselves. In his terms, putting one’s own interests first is, paradoxically, putting everyone’s interests first. Needless to say, Professor Friedman is not a strong supporter of taxation or social democracy.

In that sense the new conservatives are like toddlers, clutching a toy shouting “Mine! Mine!” to the other children in the sandbox. For one reason or another—deliberately, in Friedman’s view—their requisite social learning did not take place, while their intellectual growth carried on normally. As adults, new conservatives see little need to be nice to people from whom they have nothing to gain. They are the people who validate themselves by explaining to broken panhandlers that “I have to work for my money.”

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that this new kind of conservatism is merely a nuanced form of cynicism. Perhaps new conservatives are well-adjusted people, people who at one point understood that their willingness to care for others was the basis of a functioning society. But the willingness to care and to share requires sacrifice, and since such principles are no longer a requirement of postmodernity, they simply decided to revert to egocentrism. And in order to deal with the painful cognitive dissonance, they turn to the Friedmans of the world for moral absolution.

John Kenneth Galbraith, who died a few weeks ago in his 98th year, would probably find the former explanation amusing, although he seemed to believe the latter: “The modern conservative” he wrote, “is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior justification for selfishness.” Galbraith had no time for mincing words or for moral equivocation. His approach to economics was not based on class interests or ideology, but on what served the interests of humanity in general.

Great as Galbraith’s contributions to political economy might have been, prolific and witty as he was, his greatest accomplishment was to permanently add a moral dimension to liberalism, and to forever embed in our collective psyche the idea that democratic governments are the primary source of general well-being in society.

Western political leaders of the nineteenth century, under pressure from their growing working classes, used the state to provide limited measures of social welfare. Nevertheless, they were tied to an older understanding of liberalism that is closer to modern conservatism: political freedom and equality before the law, but little else. Ultimately, they believed that people should be left to their own devices to survive. Yet the notion that the state could and should provide for its citizens continued to grow in the public mind, and it was during the Great Depression that the working poor forced governments to take the welfare of their citizens seriously.

Starting in the Depression, Galbraith took the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes and the genuine concern both had for others and, throughout his public and academic life, sought to secure widespread prosperity and well-being through the state. His motives were not to save the state or to save capitalism; Galbraith had the sophistication to realize that these were merely tools by which to administer affairs, not dogmas to follow with slavish devotion. Nor did he think that this was a strategy of enlightened self-interest on the part of the owning classes to help others; liberalism was not based in selfishness but in decency and compassion. Galbraith’s economic and political beliefs and actions were rooted in the moral conviction that the world can be a good place for people to live if we want it be. Galbraith sincerely cared about people in an era that was increasingly given to the amoral ‘organization man’.

He had a vision of the world that was not based on our past experiences with scarcity but on our current affluence, and he was able to develop new economic ideas because he understood that ideas are generated by, and must be applied to, a specific time and place. For Galbraith, economics was the servant of the public, not a system or ideology to be served at the public’s expense. More importantly, however, his experience in public life was an analytical lesson in the persistent and pernicious logic of systems and the operation of unconscious belief on those in power. That’s why Galbraith broke from the mainstream and was one of the very few to suggest, as early as the 1950s, that decreasing production and being less obsessed with consumption might actually be good for society and the world.

Conservatives will no doubt point out that, for all Galbraith’s efforts, Friedman’s conservatism and monetarism were adopted by those in power. Nevertheless, Galbraith was part of the transformation of the state that lasted from the New Deal up the early seventies. More importantly, the structure of this evolution towards social democracy persists despite the best efforts of conservatives to dismantle it. On the other side, Socialist detractors can make an effective case that the capitalist state is inherently opposed to the interests of the working class and poor. Yet judging by his writings, as well as his attempt to educate politicians and the public alike, Galbraith was acutely aware of the state’s limitations, and he had a first-hand understanding of class and hegemony. His notion of ‘conventional wisdom’ is almost identical to Gramsci’s ‘common sense’.

It is probably inadequate to explain away conservatives by suggesting that they are socially underdeveloped, despite the substantiating evidence. Likewise, it is also spurious to suggest that Galbraith was the most decent American intellectual of the 20th century because he was Canadian by birth, much as Canadians might want to claim him this way. Galbraith led a long and intensely cosmopolitan life, and at 97 he deserves his rest without partisan claims upon his soul. He poured his life energies into making the world a better place and, in spite of all the stupid and mean things that we as humans do, he stood by his convictions that human beings could be good, and that we can make the state and economics work for us if we take the time to examine our beliefs.

He, only in general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”

–William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

1305 words May 20, 2006


  • David Banerjee

    David Banerjee is a guy that lives in Toronto, and writes in his apartment. He teaches creative writing courses, but mostly to four year olds who would rather be playing with blocks.

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