Friday, March 28, 2008

Ed Glaeser on John Galbraith

here (via Greg Mankiw):

Galbraith's advocacy of public spending aimed at reducing inequality and improving infrastructure helped usher in the 1960s. Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty was decidedly Galbraithian. While the New Deal social programs were born of economic desperation, Johnson's social spending reflected the confidence of prosperity, just as Galbraith had foreseen. But after 1969, the American public gradually turned against Galbraithian social policy. By 1980, Galbraith's arch-nemesis, Milton Friedman, had found an intellectual home in the White House. In the 1990s, even Democrats embraced private wealth over public spending. But in 2008, "The Affluent Society" seems relevant once more. As the political pendulum swings left, candidates once again call for a more vibrant state to right social wrongs. The excesses of the 1960s are forgotten and once again, the government is seen as society's savior. For people of all political stripes, it is worthwhile returning to "The Affluent Society," and pondering what Galbraith got right and what he got wrong.

While I am a staunch supporter of free markets, I agree with Galbraith that there is much the public sector needs to do. Private firms do not automatically provide safe streets, good roads, and clean water. Even more important, Galbraith was dead right in arguing that we need more effective schools. Human capital is our best tool against poverty and economic stagnation.

Galbraith's great failure was that he never really understood how much society is strengthened by a free and competitive private sector. "The Affluent Society" argues that a lack of regulation made American homes inferior to those in European social democracies. That view was wrong in 1958 and is completely untenable today. American housing is the best in the world, and the weaknesses of the housing market reflect too much, not too little, regulation, especially those rules that stymie construction and make housing unaffordable. While Galbraith was right that some social problems do need a stronger public sector, his analysis would read better today if he had also appreciated the tremendous vitality that comes with economic freedom

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