John Kenneth Gaibraith, the Real Elitist Snob

If Galbraith, whose economics are back in vogue again, wasn’t one, they don’t exist:

Here we reach the heart of the matter. Galbraith’s thinking about social and economic matters was always de haut en bas; his solutions emerged from the Olympian heights of his own ratiocination, to be applied to the clueless multitudes below. (No doubt his own great height, over 6 foot 8, accustomed him to looking down on people.) His literary style is symptomatic of his attitude, a true case of the style being the man himself. Hundreds of times, he uses question-begging locutions that intimidate with their orotund grandeur. I open a book of his at random and find the following: “The controlling fact is”; “This trade-off is present in all accepted thought”; “Nor should one wish otherwise”; “It has now been adequately urged”; “This is not a matter of choice; it is the modern imperative”; “It would, of course, be a serious error”; “This has long been recognized”; “All of this is to be welcomed”; “The lesson is clear”; “The solution is not difficult; it has the advantage of inevitability.”

The cumulative effect is to intimidate those who believe themselves not well enough informed to contradict so high an authority. We are far from the realm of Jane Austen’s light and ironic “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” When J. K. Galbraith enunciates a truth universally acknowledged, he does not want us to smile inwardly; he wants us to fear not being included in le tout Paris of correct, generous, and humane thought. What fool does not wish to be on the side of the inevitable? Who does not want to recognize what has so long been recognized? Who dares to deny that what the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics says three times is true?

It’s hard to convince most Americans that a) those who are raised at the top hold a high opinion of themselves and a low one of the rest of humanity and b) they’re so convinced of their own rectitude that they’re oblivious to the real nature of their idea.  It’s been that way for a long time.  As I said in a post about growing up in Palm Beach:

Attitudes from the “coasts” about “flyover country” in the U.S. have been deep seated for a long time; stage productions like this only reinforced that. It’s fair to say that, if the “Religious Right” had fully grasped the contempt they were held in when the movement first got going in the late 1970’s they would not have started the Moral Majority: they would have started a revolution.

Dalrymple also notes this:

There remains, however, an astonishingly gaping absence in Galbraith’s worldview. While he is perfectly able to see the defects of businessmen—their inclination to megalomania, greed, hypocrisy, and special pleading—he is quite unable to see the same traits in government bureaucrats. It is as if he has read, and taken to heart, the work of Sinclair Lewis, but never even skimmed the work of Kafka.

Had he done this, his view of the world would have been much more cynical and less roseate.  Besides, he should have read Kafka long before Sinclair Lewis.

Why?  Because Kafka is European!  Any real elitist snob knows that!

3 Replies to “John Kenneth Gaibraith, the Real Elitist Snob”

    1. It’s interesting to note that Late Roman law enshrined a different legal standard for the honestiores at the top and the humiliores at the bottom, and that’s probably the origin of the word “privilege” which, as the article points out, translates as “private law.”

      The problem with Galbraith is that he was very solicitous about the faults of business people but blind to those in the government. But exceptionalistic attitudes are common to both and it’s hard to demonstrate that one is more commendable than the other. The balance of power may and does change between them but if either sucks of the oxygen of society the result at the bottom is the same.

      One Christian solution to this problem has been distributionism, whose advocates have included Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and (in a subtle way) J.R.R. Tolkien. But that would involve a decentralisation of power that, right at the moment, doesn’t have a big enough fan club–or one that is in a position to make it happen–in our society.


  1. There are some attractive things about distributivism, but frankly, I’m not sure how we could get there from here at this point, and not just because everybody is enthralled with centralized power. One thing that someone suggested somewhere was tax incentives for employee-owned corporations (ESOP’s) and producer cooperatives. I would favor that, along with an emphasis on more of generalized cooperative/credit union model for most banking (and I would probably add tax incentives for companies to accept collective bargaining and unionization of their employees).


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