|In the passing away of John Kenneth Galbraith, the world has lost the last of the economic philosophers with a heart. By Rex Mathew.|
John Kenneth Galbraith, noted economist, liberal thinker and prolific writer belonged to the old school of socialist leaning liberal intellectuals. He was a staunch believer of Keynesian economics and a critic of free market economics and big businesses.
A Canadian by birth, Galbraith started his teaching career at the University of California after completing his PhD from the same University. Later, he taught at the Universities of Princeton and Harvard. At Harvard, he was the Paul M Warburg Professor of Economics, Emeritus. He also became a fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge.
He worked in the government during the Second World War in various capacities. He was in charge of wartime price control and also became the director of US Strategic Bombing Survey. Later he became the director of Economic Security Policy in the US state department.
In his most well known work, The Affluent Society, he argued that the US government should increase its spending on public goods like basic infrastructure and education. He favoured higher taxation to fund these programmes, which he believed would lead to sustained economic development in the post-war era.
His ideas influenced the John F Kennedy administration to launch a massive public spending programme, dubbed as 'war on poverty'. This programme, which produced mixed results, was continued by successive democratic administrations.
Galbraith enjoyed his stint as the US Ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. His liberal and pro-public sector ideas endeared him to the Nehru government and the Indian intellectuals of the time who were predominantly Left-leaning. The now common reference to India as a 'functioning anarchy' can be traced back to Galbraith.
Nehru and Galbraith developed a strong personal bond as they shared similar views on many subjects. It was speculated that Galbraith had a strong influence on many of the public sector-oriented economic policies under Nehru's prime ministership.
Galbraith's criticism of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, for his role in the partition of the country and the bloodshed that followed further endeared him to common Indians. He took considerable interest in Indian art and co-authored a book on Indian painting.
The global IT industry should thank Galbraith for being instrumental in setting up a computer science department at IIT, Kanpur in the early '60s.
Provocative as his ideas were, it is not the least surprising that Galbraith should have had no dearth of critics. He was often described as a 'conversationalist' who misled people. His views on free markets, large corporations and public policy ran contrary to conventional American ideology of the time.
Like most hard-core institutionalists, Galbraith believed that the government or the public sector should play the primary role in economic and social development. He argued that the government has the right to spend funds raised through taxation as it pleases without any controls. At the same time he was critical of ostentatious personal spending, such as more than one car for a family, and called for government control on such spending.
Galbraith believed in building a new class of people of highly educated technocrats. He believed that this new class should take over government and public as it would have the ability to see beyond 'conventional wisdom', a term he coined.
These views were savaged by critics who said Galbraith believed in the superiority of a particular class of people and their paternalistic attitudes. Ayn Rand even went on to state that Galbraith promoted medieval feudalism.
Well-known economists like Milton Friedman criticised Galbraith's views on free markets. "Many reformers - Galbraith is not alone in this - have as their basic objection to a free market that it frustrates them in achieving their reforms, because it enables people to have what they want, not what the reformers want. Hence every reformer has a strong tendency to be adverse to a free market", Friedman wrote.
Despite these criticisms, Galbraith remained true to his Keynesian economic philosophy till the very end. His last major economic work, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, criticises modern economists for ignoring people. For many left leaning liberals, he will remain one of the few Americans whom they can count as fellow travellers.
- Modern Competition and Business Policy, 1938
- A Theory of Price Control, 1952
- American Capitalism: The concept of countervailing power, 1952
- The Great Crash, 1929, 1954
- The Affluent Society, 1958
- The Liberal Hour, 1960
- The New Industrial State, 1967
- The Triumph, 1968
- Economics, Peace and Laughter, 1972
- Power and the Useful Economist, 1973
- Economics and the Public Purpose, 1973
- Money: Whence it came, Where it went, 1975
- The Age of Uncertainty, 1977
- Annals of an Abiding Liberal, 1979
- A Life in Our Times, 1981
- The voice of the poor, 1983
- The anatomy of power, 1983
- Economics in perspective: A critical history, 1987
- A short history of Financial Euphoria, 1990
- A journey through economic time, 1994
- The Good Society: the humane agenda, 1996
- Letters to Kennedy, 1998
- The Economics of Innocent Fraud, 2004
- The Triumph - a novel, 1968
- Ambassador's Journal, on his experiences in India, 1969
- Indian Painting - with Mohinder Singh Randhawa, 1969
- The Tenured Professor - a novel, 1990