The Age of Uncertainty

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Those who are familiar with John Kenneth Galbraith and his works think of him as the economist who attacked the large producers, large buyers, and large unions which exert substantial economic power. Others think of him as a radical in his profession who attacks traditional economic theory and prefers the development of a large and active public or government sector in America to solve its problems. Galbraith is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University and former chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action. However, it is frequently overlooked that Galbraith is an exceptionally talented literary artist as well as a contemporary political philosopher and historian who would probably much prefer to be compared to John Locke or Karl Marx than to Paul Samuelson or Simon Kuznets.

Galbraith has published a series of books, several of which have gained popular acclaim. He is probably best known for two books that have generated considerable controversy: The Affluent Society (1958), in which he argues for a strong public sector, and The New Industrial State (1967), in which he argues that the traditional businessman has been replaced by a technostructure of specialists in the modern corporate world. Whether or not one accepts Galbraith’s views, there is no question that he raises provocative issues and provides insights as well as informative material in an interesting and understandable style. It is this particular quality that makes his books so popular and pleasurable to read. The Age of Uncertainty is no disappointment in this sense.

As a matter of background, The Age of Uncertainty is a consequence of the effort to develop the film series of the same title, which was produced by the BBC and shown throughout the United States on the Public Broadcasting System. For his pilot attempt with the new media, Galbraith proceeded to write a series of concise essays that focused on a single contention: that there is worldwide tension which results from the “shaking up” of traditional political and economic doctrines. In other words, Galbraith examines the contrasts between the certainties of the past century with the uncertainties of our time. Capitalism, with its well-defined theory of markets and profits, was certain of its success, yet now we are witness to the uncertainty of its future. Socialism was certain of the rightness of its views; now it is haunted by uncertainty. Imperialists, certain that colonialism was the proper way to deal with underdeveloped societies, are now being toppled in many places throughout the world. These are the issues that Galbraith approaches in his typical evolutionary style. As would be expected, much of his material is derived from his earlier works. Indeed, parts of this book are taken directly from earlier publications. But for those who are familiar with Galbraith, The Age of Uncertainty will not be a disappointment. Galbraith pursues his challenge to the powers of the marketplace and questions the assumed dangers of the State. He also takes a position that appears to have substantial public sympathy, in favor of increased government involvement in economic affairs.

Galbraith’s approach is methodical and thorough. First he examines the political-economic philosophers in a detailed, comprehensive way and discusses their impact on the political-economic systems. From the viewpoint of an economist, he outlines the evolution of economic thought and history. Galbraith is able to present his information in a way that is generally appealing and fascinating, by blending details with interesting anecdotes and major historical events to provide pointed insights and reflections into the evolution of historical episodes over the past two hundred years.

Purely by coincidence, 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence, is also the year that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a treatise that has come to be accepted by economists as the origin of modern economic thinking. Smith concluded that the wealth of a nation results from the independent pursuit of each of its citizens to seek his own interest; Galbraith takes the reader through the more familiar episodes and examples in Smith’s classic work in order to set the scene for the events of that era and to contrast the view of Adam Smith with our current economic structure, with its conglomerates, multinational corporations, and international labor unions. He pursues what he calls the “tyranny of circumstance,” contrasting the historical situation with the theoretical...

(The entire section is 1870 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Critic. XXXVI, Summer, 1977, p. 84.

Journal of Economic Literature. XV, September, 1977, p. 932.

New York Times. March 28, 1977, p. 27.

New York Times Book Review. April 3, 1977, p. 12.

Saturday Review. IV, April 16, 1977, p. 43.

Time. CIX, April 4, 1977, p. 85.