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Medal of Freedom?

August 16, 2000

John Kenneth Galbraith

This is a pretty good measure of how far we have come in America in our
understanding of freedom from that of the founders: Bill Clinton awareded the "Medal of Freedom" to John Kenneth Galbraith on August 9, 2000,
despite the fact that Galbraith has been a stalwart champion of the very
opposite idea of freedom from that laid out by those founders.

Galbraith, a professor emeritus at the department of economics at
Harvard University, although a fine writer and charming human being--
so much so that William F. Buckley, Jr., has been his long time friend
despite their political differences--has been a socialist for
nearly all of his career. He has been a relentless critic of
capitalism and the market system, based on his essentially elitist and
paternalistic idea of what governments must do for the people they
serve. This was to make them all abide by tenets of "fairness" or, at
least, his socialist version of that ideal.

Galbraith, though an avowed statist--not of the Marxist-Leninist but
more of the democratic socialist variety--has been one of the most
fervent bashers of the "rich" in contemporary American culture. While not an
explicit Marxist, he accepted the Marxian idea that capitalists create
nothing and take a great deal that they should not be allowed to have.
In his most popular book, The Affluent Society, he laid out a case for
a powerful welfare state. He has written in some of the most
prestigious publications of our society, including The New York Review
of Books
, The New York Times, American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation
and so on.

One of his most well known and widely studied legacies was created
from a section of his book dealing with advertising. Galbraith
asserted that advertising is a device by which business creates desires
in consumers which must be acted on and thus produce what he called
"the dependency effect." In other words, consumers become dependent on
corporations because the latter create desires in them for the goods
and services they offer for sale. By this means, corporations become
wealthy, make huge profits, while resources are taken away from far
more important projects, you guessed it, those the government wants to
provide for us. The public sector is diminished and the private sector
unfairly benefits.

This famous section of The Affluent Society is reprinted in nearly all
business ethics readers serving as text books for business school
students across the world. Far fewer of these volumes offer the
decisive rebuttal to Galbraith's position, penned by the great
economists, the late F. A. Hayek. Hayek noted that Galbraith's claim
is true but not just for business and advertisers but also of all human
creative endeavors.

The difference is that unlike Galbraith, Hayek did
not believe that the desires that people might cultivate for what is
presented to them must be acted on. Instead, we have the freedom to
choose whether to try to fulfill our desires, however they might be
created. Advertising appeals to us but cannot make us do anything. It
is a promotional project by which producers call out to us hoping we
would consider what they have to offer and to purchase it. But there
is no guarantee at all that we will act as the advertisers wishes we
would.

In what sense does Galbraith deserve a medal of freedom? Only in the
sense that a certain conception of freedom does underlie his thinking.
This is what is called "positive" freedom. It means a condition
whereby people are provided by government, and at the expense of other
people, with what they could use to advance their lot. Such provisions
would "free" them to move forward.

The freedom of the American founders is quite different, mainly backed
by a different idea of human nature. It is that people in communities
require first and foremost not to be thwarted in their efforts to make
headway in life.

Others may not be conscripted into involuntary servitude to provide
them with what they might need because if they are not thwarted by
them, they will be able to do this on their own. Not equally rapidly,
not to the same extent, perhaps, but if they only apply themselves,
they will flourish without coercing others.

Galbraith has never championed this kind of "negative" freedom. So
his views are alien to the American political tradition. It is not
surprising, then, that he receives the medal of freedom from President
Bill Clinton, someone who has done nothing at all to further freedom in
this truly American sense.

To Galbraith's minor credit, however, he did, a few years ago, finally
admit that capitalism is a far better economic system than socialism.
He did this only in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. And
even then with great reservations and regret.

He was asked, in an interview published in Alitalia's October 1996 "in
flight" magazine: "You spoke of the failure of socialism. Do you see
this as a total failure, a counterproductive alternative?" He replies
this way: "I'd make a distinction here. What failed was the
entrepreneurial state, but it had some beneficial effect. I do not
believe that there are any radical alternatives, but there are
correctives. The only alternative socialism, that is the alternative
to the market economy, has failed. The market system is here to stay."

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Send him MAIL.


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