Saturday, May 18, 2013

John Kenneth Galbraith, "The Age of Uncertainty: The Prophets and Promise of Classical Capitalism"

John Kenneth Galbraith did a 15-episode TV documentary series in 1977 called The Age of Uncertainty, with a companion book volume of the same name.

The episodes are currently available on YouTube, so I'm going to post them here, one per day.

Staring with, of course, The Age of Uncertainty Episode 1 - The Prophets and Promise of Classical Capitalism:

Much of this episode is devoted to the founders of economics, Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

He prepared the book's text based on the essays he wrote from which the TV script was prepared. So the text has additional material not included in the TV broadcast.

In the book's first chapter, he writes:

On one of the last pages of his last and most famous book John Maynard Keynes - by wide agreement the most influential economist of this century - observed that" ... the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." This was written in 1935. Thinking then of the oratory of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher which was at the time in full tide, and of Alfred Rosenberg and Houston Stewart Chamberlain from whose writings they drew their racial doctrines, he added: "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." Then came his affirmation: "... the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas."
But he characteristically proceeds to qualify Keynes' observation: "... we had best not close our eyes too completely to the idea of vested interest. People have an enduring tendency to protect what they have, justify what they want to have. And their tendency is to see as right the ideas that serve such purpose. Ideas may be superior to vested interest. They are also very often the children of vested interest."

Writing of pre-Revolutionary France, he also makes this useful point:

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged feel also that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich. So it was in the Ancien Régime. When reform from the top became impossible, revolution from the bottom became inevitable.
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