March 26, 2004,
I called on the legendary John Kenneth Galbraith, probably the most influential U.S. intellectual of the 20th century, and although old and housebound and hard of hearing, he has a new book, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, for publication in April. The publishers are dizzy with delight over the brief (62-page) manuscript, in which the author, in his singular way, using an ironic trenchancy that shatters glass with its explosive acuity, makes his briefs. He focuses now on the modern corporation, its immunity from social control, and the apparently uncontrollable impulse to focus national skills on making bigger and better armaments. But all of this is for book-reviewing time, at which it will be appropriate to observe that the military emphasis for thirty years has been on developing discriminating, not undiscriminating, weaponry.
But one immediate concern is Mr. Galbraith's conviction that a true conservatism would take a stand against everything that is identified with George W. Bush's policies. These are, he says, thoughtless, dogmatic, and unqualified for benediction by any respectable conservative. Which is where I come in, as it happens: Mr. Galbraith invites me, nay, adjures me, to denounce Bush and his policies "in the name of conservatism."
"What is it about Bush's policies that makes them unworthy of conservative benediction?"
"What is Bush ignorant of?"
"Ricardo, for instance."
"What of Ricardo, specifically?"
"Ricardo's learning and perspective and his hold on comprehensive doctrines."
"How do you account for this, that Bush has supporters whom you would deem to be educated, even if they are not Ricardo-ites?"
He goes there into categorical thinking which is circular: Bush doctrines are bankrupt of ideas and therefore ideas can't be ascribed to Bush doctrines.
But how does he account for the plain fact that there are people who back Bush who are both learned and by no means merely sycophantic?
Mr. Galbraith delivers his crushing point. "There is not one member of the faculty of Harvard University who is pro Bush."
This invited copious rejoinders. Mr. Galbraith was talking to the humble figure who wrote forty years ago that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty. But all successful aphorisms are en route to becoming clichés, so I observed briefly that Professor Galbraith was implying a disjunction in thought which was itself more interesting than the coincidence-or is it a coincidence?-that you can't back Bush and serve on the Harvard faculty. Just to begin with, of course, it isn't true. Professor Martin Feldstein is a tenured professor in good standing.
But it is so nearly true-that elite faculty are liberals, opposed to conservative, or neoconservative, thought and action-as to raise corollary questions. How do faculty of intellectual-elitist communities converse, e.g., with the 50 million people who voted for George Bush for president? The mention of Bush, in politics, means nowadays one thing: the Bush who went into Iraq. Differences with Democrats over the environment, the economy, abortion, tariffs, are tolerable; not so his commitment in Iraq. No one grounded in the thought of seminal figures-Ricardo, for instance-can endorse Iraq, we are being told.
But of course that simply isn't so. What is so is that the proprietors of the U.S. intellectual reservation-and no one here has a larger plant than J. K. Galbraith-are laboring, and with great success, to classify our initiative in the Middle East as a) thoughtless, b) irresponsible, c) doomed to failure, and d) absolutely requiring political repudiation at the next election. Inevitably the mischievous question arises: Is it the nation's Republican voters who need a haircut, or the enclave of intellectuals who want to do the thinking for the entire nation?
"Bush is unique. Even Reagan had some sympathy here at Harvard."
"They weren't exactly backers, but they understood him as a, well, pleasant man."
"Not so Bush?"
The temptation is to devise for oneself the final, crushing retort. The French call that: l'esprit de l'escalier. What occurs to you, on reaching the bottom of the staircase, that you might have said to overwhelm your mistress with. Well, I went down the staircase, into a train, three hours to get home, and still haven't come up with any way to silence John Kenneth Galbraith.