Saturday, May 20, 2006

Galbraith Was Not Like Adam Smith

D. W. Dell: “In Memoriam John Kenneth Galbraith” in Media Blvd Magazine, Los Angeles, California, USA, writes:

Of course my introduction to economics spoiled me because I thought that all economists possessed Professor Galbraith’s gift for language. Such was not the case. Mr. Galbraith was a throwback to classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who combined a facility with language and keen observations of human nature in writing their tomes. Smith, in particular, littered The Wealth of Nations with wry comedic observations (I’m not saying the book is filled with knee-slappers about priests, rabbis, and horses who walk into bars, but there are many passages that should bring a smile).”

I would agree with Mr Dell that Adam Smith “combined a facility with language and keen observations of human nature in writing” his ‘Moral Sentiments’ (1759) and ‘Wealth of Nations’ (1776), but David Ricardo? And Smith had a rhetorical style that was sharp and amusing; I do not remember many such ‘wry comedic observations’ in Ricardo, who is better known for his abstract language and sometimes tortuous syntax.

“The Age of Uncertainty describes itself as “A history of economic ideas and their consequences.” As he describes in the related book’s introduction, the point was to talk about men first, then the institutions that implemented their ideas. One point was, no doubt, to show how far the free market disciples had strayed from the source of their devotion; modern Chambers of Commerce will praise self-interest without understanding what Adam Smith’s true views on self-interest were.”

I think the main problem with Galbraith is that he was wrong on many points; he exaggerated the influence of corporations and seemed to see society as one gigantic conspiracy theory (a theme suggesting that US society is paranoid – the ‘powers that be are not out to get you; they already have managed to do so’).

Smith’s rhetoric and historical method survives and will last. Galbraith, much like Veblen, latched onto a few powerful themes that are already dated. Chomsky is another intellectual in similar vein.


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