June 18, 2019 1:56PM

1973: The Year John Kenneth Galbraith Made Socialism Mainstream

I started writing about economic issues in 1971, first in Reason then National Review. One of my most serious early articles –­and certainly the most unread–­ was a 2800-word critique of John Kenneth Galbraith in The Intercollegiate Review, posing as a book review with the mildly disrespectful title "Irrelevant Anachronism."  

Ken Galbraith and I met years later, when he was invited to comment about my presentation at a 1987 debate at Harvard [recorded by C-Span] about "The Disappearing Middle Class" on a panel with Lester Thurow, Barry Bluestone and Frank Levy.  

In Paul Krugman's ill-tempered 1994 book, Peddling Prosperity [which I reviewed as "Peddling Pomposity"], he called Galbraith "the first celebrity economist," adding that "he has never been taken seriously by his academic colleagues, who regard him as more of a media personality."

Today, Krugman is a leading celebrity economist and media personality. But he never approached the pop chart supremacy and political clout that Galbraith once had. Galbraith was, for example, the uncontested bandleader behind the deafening drumbeat for Nixon's price controls in August 15, 1971.

My September 24, 1971 cover story for National Review, "The Case Against Wage and Price Controls" began by dismembering the arguments behind Galbraith's briefly victorious argument that, "The seemingly obvious remedy for the wage-price spiral is to regulate prices and wages by public authority" [from The New Industrial State, 1967].

Once the central government can tell workers what their labor is worth and tell businessmen how to price their products, that is about as far as we can possibly get from a free market, and Nixon's New Economic Policy was perhaps as close as the U.S. ever came to full-blown socialism (aside from rationing in major wars). The only thing worse would be allowing the government make virtually all decisions about what producers can produce and consumers can consume ­–­ otherwise known as "socialism." 

In his 1973 book, Economics and the Public Purpose, Galbraith found a "socialist imperative" for virtually every product or service of much importance. As in the case of his campaign for wage and price controls, this clarion call for socialism fit in with the temper of the times and did not generate the concern or skepticism the word sometimes arouses today.

When Americans today wonder what "socialism" means, they could do worse than recall how the quite mainstream commentator John Kenneth Galbraith defined it in 1973. Newsweek provided a concise summary on October 1, 1973 with Arthur Cooper's glowing review of Galbraith's book, Economics and the Public Purpose (also the topic of my review about its quaint irrelevance). 

In the tradition of New Deal regulatory protagonists Berle and Means (whose inspiration he acknowledged in many books), Galbraith wrote of a “bureaucratic symbiosis” between the federal government and the “planning system” of giant corporations and their “technostructure” of lawyers, scientists, engineers and lobbyists. 

Cooper explained: 

Galbraith is certain that the people are being exploited by a [corporate-dominated] planning system whose interests run increasingly counter to their best interests. . . [and is] blunt about what is required to rectify the situation- "a new socialism." This socialism demands various actions:

•          Set up "full organization under public ownership of the weak parts of the market system- housing, medical care and transportation."

•          Encourage small-business men and firms in the market system to form trade associations, with governmental regulation of prices and extend coverage of the minimum wage as well as a major increase in the amount.

•          Abandon the unrealistic goal of full employment and institute instead a guaranteed or alternative income for those who cannot find satisfactory work.

•          Convert "fully mature corporations" into fully public [government-owned] corporations. This would mean public purchase of stock for fixed- interest-bearing securities so that capital gains would accrue to the public treasury. Such public corporations as Renault and the Tennessee Valley Authority are run this way now.

•          Also convert large specialized weapons firms doing more than half their business with the government into full public corporations. "The large weapons firms are already socialized except in name"-e.g., Lockheed and General Dynamics.

•          Impose a public authority to coordinate different areas of the planning system. Thus, the promotion of electrical use by appliance firms will not run absurdly ahead of the utilities' ability to supply electricity.

•          Establish "a special presumption" in favor of public support of the arts.

Admittedly not a "revolutionary," Galbraith allows that all this will come about only through political processes- once politics itself is emancipated from the grip of the planning system. Since he believes the Republican Party is "the instrument of the planning system," Galbraith's hopes repose in the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party. Will Galbraith's ideas, which may be "radical" but certainly sound sensible, work? Maybe time will tell. But John Galbraith sounds like an idea whose time has come.

Mr. Cooper's 1973 hope that the time had come for socialism proved a decidedly premature forecast, thanks in part to (1) George McGovern's unprecedented presidential defeat and (2) the stagflationary disaster resulting from Nixon's 1971-74 policy of mixing a deliberately debased dollar with Galbraithian wage and price controls.

Belief in socialism requires innocently trusting politicians and bureaucrats to make all your decisions for you, typically by promising to give you goodies that some other chump is expected to pay for. This inevitably involves greatly limiting individual choices: the fewer choices are left, the more "socialist" the system has become. "Single payer," for example, means a single choice. Take it or leave it. Second or third choices become illegal.

If a single choice from the bossy political duopoly was better than many in the marketplace, we might as well replace all U.S. restaurants with a chain of federal cafeterias, and allow production and sales of only one people's car in only one color.