Tuesday, October 18, 2005

economics, power and Liberals 

The current political gropings in the Conservative Party leadersip crawl irresistably recalls this:

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral
philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for

An observation by John Kenneth Galbraith, of course, a writer all liberals (even Liberals) should read and re-read for several reasons. First because his writing is superb and witty and even politics should have moments of beauty and pleasure. Second because he casts such clear lights on the political agendas within economics. There is a huge effort by the self-interested to define economics in ways that shut out progressive and humane choices. Reading Galbraith will help us see the wider possibilities are not actually just dreams.

Galbraith is still with us – his 97th birthday was on Saturday 15th October. His lifetime covers a third of that of the USA since 1776 (and his professional observations on ecoonomics cover a quarter of that lifetime) so he has seen a lot… this New York Review of Books article on a major biography gives a good overview of his strengths and also perhaps errors. As the NYRB article concludes…

“ The importance of public goods, the central theme of The Affluent Society, has
received perhaps the most serious attention, especially in the economics of
human development. Few economists still believe that stimulating economic growth
is all that matters. Social programs for health care, education, transportation,
and other infrastructure are now widely considered integral to long-term
development. The Human Development Report of the United Nations Development
Programme publishes indexes of human development, based in particular on the
work of Harvard's Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, which include measures of health,
education, and gender discrimination.
There also has long been a constant flow of pertinent criticism from in-dependent economists emphasizing the importance of institutions and economic structure that Galbraith always believed were central to economic understanding. Galbraith refused to make simplifying assumptions that lent themselves to economic methods and other quantitative techniques…."Most economic philosophers needed only to be
right as regards their own time," Galbraith writes in The Affluent Society.
Galbraith's intellectual courage, sensitivity to the abuse of power, understanding of the limits of economic growth, and grasp of the institutions of everyday life will combine to make his body of work relevant well beyond his time…

We UK Liberal Democrats need to keep these perspectives in our active policy lives.

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