- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard economist and public intellectual who arguably was the most aggressive and prolific advocate of American liberalism throughout the second half of the 20th century, died over the weekend at the age of 97. His was truly the fullest of lives — and the least of it was its longevity, though that, too, was enormously impressive.

From 1952, when he published his first of dozens of institutionalist books (“American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power”) through 2004, Mr. Galbraith had authored more than three dozen books, including several novels. Influenced by social critic Thorstein Veblen and his notion of “conspicuous consumption,” Mr. Galbraith published his most famous work, “The Affluent Society,” in 1958, arguing that America’s consumer-driven economy operated at the expense of more desirable spending by the government on public programs. More than two decades earlier, in 1937, as a newly married and recently naturalized U.S. citizen, the Canadian-born economist traveled to Cambridge University in England, where he became one of the first U.S. disciples of John Maynard Keynes. Over the next seven decades, Mr. Galbraith’s belief in government as the driving force toward national economic greatness never wavered. He considered America’s self-styled market economy to be inappropriately dominated by large corporations (GM, Ford, U.S. Steel) whose power was partly countervailed by powerful labor unions, not by competition and entrepreneurial small businesses. More than three decades after publication of his highly critical “American Capitalism,” for example, he argued, “Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” Seven years later, “the Russian system” imploded.

Mr. Galbraith served in four Democratic administrations — from FDR, for whom he was a senior official in the Office of Price Administration, where a young, ambitious lawyer (Richard Nixon) was a subordinate, to a speechwriter for LBJ (providing the rhetorical support for the Great Society and the War on Poverty). Mr. Galbraith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from a fifth Democratic president (Bill Clinton); and he advised numerous other Democratic presidential aspirants, including Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy.

While this page has always disagreed with the vast majority of Mr. Galbraith’s ideas, we have admired his readiness over the decades to debate them civilly with Friedrich von Hayek, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman and other powerful minds. Mr. Galbraith’s inexhaustible wit, always delivered with prose that was as elegant as it was eloquent, will be missed.

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