Abook by Ken Galbraith is an event to arouse high expectations.footnote1 He is one of the very few writers in economics capable of combining exceptionally penetrating matter with a delicious manner—a quality which is less and less in evidence as teutonic turgidity is taken for scientific soundness, and mathematical short cuts for scholarly rigour. When a book by Galbraith is about the problem of development, this most complicated, least ‘determinate’ and entirely dynamical and politico-sociological field—in which economics proper can legitimately claim only a very small role—one looks forward with pleasurable anticipation to new insights.
I fear that the origins of this particular booklet, discussed deprecatingly and sensitively in the introduction, have somewhat affected its savour. It was the product, in the main, of Galbraith’s need to have lectures ready for his visits to the universities of India as us Ambassador there. It is, so to speak, his conventional wisdom that we are vouchsafed. Now I would prefer Galbraith’s conventional wisdom any day to the most ‘subtle’ ratiocinations of the majority of economists. He is quite unable to be boring, and very nearly unable to be conventional. But as he says: ‘The humour of college professors is almost invariably bad because they do not realize that students, who are both bored and anxious to flatter, will laugh at anything. What goes over in class then becomes their standard wit. The more general response to these lectures was subject to a similar discount: anything was better than what the long-suffering Indians had come to expect on such occasions. One should not assume anything very brilliant.’
A us ambassador, even a Galbraith—a conjunction not often experienced—must be discreet (though not quite as discreet as a British ambassador), and must conform (while again not quite as much as his British opposite number would). This is the penalty of fame and influence. Can anyone standing at his majestic height be deprecating to an Indian audience about development and increasing standards? As an American with a national income almost a hundred times as great, can he point to the growing emptiness of the advances made in the us? It would be mockery in an environment where the basic material needs of
When Galbraith lays down a ‘Popular Consumption Criterion’, i.e. the focusing of all economic policy on the needs of the masses, he admits the legitimacy of doubts. But he is not at liberty to discredit in detail the inner motivations of our Western economic and social system—this might produce unwelcome doubts in the minds of some Bengali student destined to permanent unemployment. It should be added, in fairness to the Americans, that Kruschev seems to have largely accepted American consumption standards as his ultimate goal. The emergence of a saner solution, more akin to Harold Wilson’s philosophy, ensuring a balance between social and private needs, between income and leisure, is unlikely to emerge unless a Labour victory in Britain ends our present feeble decay and propensity to imitate American subtopia in a minor key.
The negativist method of discussing the causes of poverty in isolation and trying to solve the problem of its causes by elimination has become very fashionable in America of late. It is an inevitable consequence of the passion for ‘rigorous’ model-building based on ceteris paribus and the variation principle, though, in my opinion, both are illegitimate in the context of large philosophical questions such as are involved in the growth and decay of empires. Yet even Professor Galbraith takes a hand at this when discussing the causes of poverty. One by one the responsibilities for poverty of the social framework, of the lack of natural resources, of motivations and government policies, of ignorance and incompetence, are dismissed and, of course, sometimes by reductio ad absurdum rather than by a detailed analysis.footnote2