Tuesday, May 16, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith, RIP

My great-uncle was a cowboy, and during the New Deal he drove a herd of cattle 40 miles to sell them to the United States government.

To his horror, the government agents immediately shot the cattle – literally right before his eyes – and bulldozed the carcasses into a ditch. He’d thought they were going to use them to feed the poor. Fifty years later he was still outraged: “They wouldn’t even let me take some of that meat for my dog.” Another life-long Republican was born.

[I’ve always wondered if one of the agents my great-uncle met that day could have been Edgar Dick, the father of science fiction legend Philip K. Dick. Edgar Dick worked for the Department of Agriculture and went around the country in the 30s, killing cows for Uncle Sam – exactly like a character in a Philip K. Dick novel. Possible, but not likely, I guess.]

His brother, my maternal grandfather, was a shopkeeper. He likewise harbored a life-long grudge against the New Deal. The thing that made him angry was the pamphlet that periodically arrived in the mail from the Office of Price Administration, listing the prices that merchants were required to charge for all items. That little book was the personal work of the Deputy Director of the OPA, John Kenneth Galbraith. The price of everything was whatever Mr. Galbraith said it was.

The liberal fetish for price-fixing probably helped cause the shortages that forced rationing during World War II, though the country had managed to avoid rationing during World War I. Most people figured out that price controls were bad when Nixon took a page from Galbraith and imposed them during the 70s. Galbraith never figured it out as long as he lived. If it had been up to him, some clever fellow in Washington would still be pulling numbers out of his butt and mailing them to every business in the country.

Galbraith was the king of American liberal economics, the biggest deal since Professor Thorstein Veblen. He typified the heroic pose of the liberal oligarch: elitist, dictatorial, utterly divorced from mathematics and methodology, and smugly convinced of the moral superiority of socialism.

Any kind of socialism. Galbraith believed that the country should be run by a triumvirate of Government, Business, and Labor. When Lee Iacocca adopted that program for his abortive presidential bid, somebody from The New Republic finally had the courage to say it: that system had already been tried; it was the essence of Mussolini-style fascism. That’s FASCISM, Boys and Girls. Iacocca was a dim-witted lightweight who faded away fast, but someone should have challenged Galbraith directly on that point. It was his idea, after all.

The parallels between fascism and liberal economic thinking will someday astound historians, but today we can’t talk about that without giving Compassion Freaks the stutter-fits. But they share the notion that freedom produces chaos and injustice, which the State can fix by wise micro-management and strict control. Liberals mostly confine this theory to the economic sphere. Mussolini applied the same logic to politics, culture, information, and education. Why not? All of those spheres are likewise full of chaos and dissent, which intellectual oligarchs are just itching to jump in and fix. Galbraith wandered down that path, too, proposing that the government force-feed government-approved culture to the masses.

So was Galbraith a fascist? Not really. Galbraith was a poser, not an economist, and his brand of “liberal” economics is a mess of smug prejudices, not a real theory. Like so many others, Galbraith took his liberal intellectual superiority for granted, and felt no need to prove it by actually doing any thinking.

Too bad. He was a pretty good writer, though. So was Mussolini.