Galbraith’s Progress

Galbraith’s Progress

Economics and the Public Purpose, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston: Houghton Mifliin. 334 pp.

I hope I will be forgiven if I begin a discussion of John Kenneth Galbraith’s latest and most important book with a small lecture. The subject we call economics arose, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, as a branch of moral philosophy. By “moral” philosophy its practitioners emphasized the demarcation between their field of scrutiny, and that of “natural” philosophy, the province of astronomers, chemists, and the like. Inside the realm of moral philosophy took place those activities whose distinguishing characteristic was that they expressed contests of will; on the far side, the stars wheeled or the elements combined in cosmic indifference.

Within the field of moral philosophy, the area that came to be called political economy concentrated on one aspect of this social clash of wills—that involving the production and distribution of society’s wealth. As political economists, the worldly philosophers recognized two aspects to their discipline. The first was a “technical” question—to understand how such an apparent melee could produce an orderly solution to the problem of social provisioning. The second question was political. It was to study the outcome of the contest from the point of view of the allocation of output among the contending classes of society.