What Was Buckley Really Doing There?

The front page of the June 1 Boston Globe had this headline: “Hundreds Gather to Memorialize Galbraith.” (That’s the late Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith.) The accompanying photo prominently features arch conservative William F. Buckley Jr. I must admit that I wondered whether Mr Buckley was there to “memorialize” Galbraith … or to make sure he was dead.

How horrid of me. But you know the zeal of us “born agains.” I was a staunch Galbraith fan in the sixties—I reluctantly admit that JKG’s New Industrial State was to me what Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead apparently was to Alan Greenspan. I now think that Galbraith got absolutely everything dead wrong—and was even a dangerous man, especially because he wrote so well. To this point the historian Robert Conquest, called “the greatest living historian” by one of his prominent peers, muses about how one might respond to a Galbraithian tome: “‘This is a beautifully printed and finely bound railway timetable’—but, unfortunately, its train times are wrong.” (Robert Conquest, The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History.)

In summary: Galbraith thought entrepreneurship was passé-DOA. (Ironic that on the occasion of his memorial service the combined net worth of Google’s two young founders more or less exceeded the value of the Harvard endowment, 370 years in the making.) Galbraith insisted that the U.S. and Soviet industrial systems were rapidly converging; according to him, we had both perfected (more or less his word) “technocratic management,” and the elitist technocrat class would noiselessly run giant, built-to-last-forever enterprises … enabling the common citizenry to invest in and spend enormous sums on “social goods.”

What a fool. (And what a fool I was to be fooled—prior to my arrival in young Silicon Valley in 1970. To be perfectly honest, it took me until about ’80 to get the entrepreneurial religion—after all, for most of that time I was at McKinsey, home to worshipers of huge enterprise, who believed in the perfectibility of such enterprises.)