John Kenneth Galbraith, the bestselling economist, has died at the age of 97. Many people, including his ideological adversaries Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr., have testified to his personal charm and geniality. So does the much younger Pete Boettke, who writes of expecting not to like Galbraith at a dinner in the 1990s, "only to be completely charmed by the man and his stories of JFK and India, of battles with Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley, or a profession which has succumbed to too much formalism, disrespect for history, and an inability to address the institutional contingencies of our age."
As an economist, however . . . well, he was an excellent writer. His books had a great influence on non-economists in the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom were required to read them in college classes. The best known was probably The Affluent Society. As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer:
Galbraith observed 'private opulence and public squalor' - that is, a society in which privately owned resources were generally clean, efficient, well-maintained, and improving in quality while public spaces were dirty, overcrowded, and unsafe - and concluded, oddly enough, that we ought to move more resources into the public sector.
Galbraith's ideas played a major role in the vast expansion of government during the 1960s and 1970s. And so now we have more public enterprises that are overused, unsafe, poorly maintained, or insolvent. But Galbraith and American politicians missed the real point of his observation. The more logical answer is that if privately owned resources are better maintained, then we should seek to expand private ownership.
The New York Times obituary is headlined "John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, Dies; Economist Held a Mirror to Society." In a mirror, of course, everything is backward.
Galbraith was a man of wit and charm. But as a public intellectual he got more things wrong than anyone other than Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown.