JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH, the Harvard economist, diplomat, and author of nearly four dozen books, loved words–especially his own, but no less those about him. So it’s too bad that he’s not here to correct so many of the hundreds of articles about him that have appeared since he died last weekend at the age of 97. As his biographer, I was sorry for him, too, that so many admirers and detractors alike miscast him as the last of a dying breed: “a liberal,” “a Keynesian economist,” or “an apostle of ‘big government.'” That’s not who he was at all, at least not as those terms are used today.
Ken Galbraith was far too protean and nuanced for such labels, and those who use them are guilty of what he called “the conventional wisdom”–“the means by which the majority protects itself from thought.” Understanding Galbraith doesn’t require that we end up agreeing with him. (Quite the contrary: He would have found a million little Galbraiths abhorrently dull.) But it does mean grasping how he thought–and why.
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