Critical Overview

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‘‘Galbraith may well be the most famous economist of the last half century,’’ observes James Ronald Stanfield, in John Kenneth Galbraith (1996). Galbraith’s celebrity status with the popular reading public may be indicated by his appearance in a February 16, 1968, Time magazine cover story, entitled ‘‘The Great Mogul.’’ David Reisman, in Galbraith and Market Capitalism (1980), sums up Galbraith’s widespread influence in stating that he has ‘‘succeeded … in stimulating more popular discussion of economic, social and political questions than has any other intellectual of his generation.’’ Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a foreword to Perspectives on Galbraith (1978), by Frederick J. Pratson, exemplifies the level and degree of respect and influence Galbraith has achieved in the realm of public policymakers: ‘‘As economist, ambassador, philosopher, professor, writer, skier, and public scold, he has had a continuing and extremely influential impact on an entire generation of American life and national economic policy.’’ Kennedy concludes:

Galbraith has been a profound, persuasive, and progressive influence on all who care about the future of this country. His role is secure as a giant in the contemporary, intellectual, and political history of America.

Pratson sums up Kennedy’s assessment in asserting, ‘‘John Kenneth Galbraith is one of the world’s most influential individuals.’’ If nothing else, all agree that Galbraith’s popular influence, for better or worse, is indicated by the number of phrases he coined which have made their way into common parlance, such as ‘‘affluent society,’’ ‘‘conventional wisdom,’’ ‘‘countervailing power,’’ and ‘‘technostructure.’’ In acknowledgement of his accomplishments, Galbraith in 1997 received the Robert Kennedy Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The Affluent Society is the first of a series of books often referred to as the Galbraithian trilogy, the other two being American Capitalism (1952) and The New Industrial State (1967). First published in 1958, The Affluent Society was an immediate popular success, becoming second on the New York Times bestseller list and translated into numerous languages. By 1990, it had sold nearly one-and-a-half million copies. Accordingly, reviews in popular periodicals tended toward favorable. Pratson observes that The Affluent Society ‘‘helped make [Galbraith] an international celebrity, a position which he has held and reinforced ever since.’’

Among his fellow economists, however, Galbraith’s work was given a generally harsh reception. Charles H. Hession, in John Kenneth Galbraith and his Critics (1972), comments, ‘‘In the years following its publication, The Affluent Society stirred up a considerable amount of controversy and debate, in the course of which some basic issues in its analysis and interpretation became evident.’’ At its extreme, criticism of Galbraith by other economists may be exemplified by Sir Keith Joseph and Sir Frank McFadzean in the telling title, The Economics of John Kenneth Galbraith: A Study in Fantasy (1977). In a foreword, Joseph exclaims of Galbraith: ‘‘His views are idiosyncratic and partisan. He does not support them with any evidence.’’ McFadzean adds, ‘‘One searches in vain for evidence to justify his lofty claim that he is actuated by a spirit of scientific inquiry.’’ McFadzean further claims, ‘‘His beguiling prose style can easily so anaesthetize the critical faculties of the unwary that they finish by believing that he is making a new and vital contribution to economics.’’

In his defense, critics commonly point to Galbraith’s ‘‘unconventional’’ approach to economics, an approach that challenges the very basis of current economic theories, as a threat to those ‘‘conventional’’ economists whose ideas are in question. Pratson notes that The Affluent Society ‘‘made great waves because it indicated a harsher and a more complex reality in the so-called happy days of the late 1950s.’’ Stanfield states that The Affluent Society

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the minds both of those who found its message palatable and those who did not, and became the lightning rod on the discourse about the habitual inclination to identify the good life with the goods life.

On Galbraith’s behalf, his defenders point out that he has with difficulty challenged members of his profession to bring their theories more in line with the realities of contemporary political, commercial, and economic life in the twentieth century; as Myron E. Sharpe, in John Kenneth Galbraith and the Lower Economics (1973), observes, ‘‘Galbraith’s job is to push, drag, cajole and finesse economics into the latter half of the twentieth century.’’ Others have noted, however, that Galbraith tends to insult his fellow scholars by neglecting to attribute some of his ideas to the work of those who preceded him; it has been pointed out that he frequently omits footnotes citing the sources of ideas not his own—a legitimate complaint on the part of his critics. Even those who champion Galbraith’s ideas concede that his arguments are frequently ambiguous, overstated, or over-general.

The Affluent Society was reissued in 1998 as a fortieth anniversary edition with a new introduction by the author. It was subsequently named one of the New York Public Library Books of the [twentieth] Century. Stanfield assesses the long-term impact of The Affluent Society on American thought, observing, ‘‘John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society is one of the most famous books of the last twenty-five years.’’ Stanfield further notes, ‘‘The issues of values and public policy raised in The Affluent Society remain not only very fresh but also indispensable reading.’’

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Essays and Criticism