THE SUCCESS OF Lord Clark's "Civilisation," Jacob Bronowski's "Ascent of Man," and Alistair Cooke's "America" has naturally whetted the appetite of the BBC for series that instruct as well as entertain. An obvious gap seemed to be the role of economic thought in the history of the last 200 years. And who better than Professor Galbraith for such a task?His experience as a journalist-scholar was greater than any other economist; his eloquence and wit are renowned. Alas the result has been a failure. The programs when shown on the BBC proved unpopular, full of unnecessary gimmicks which irritated the critics and bored the public. However the failure of the series was due to more profound reasons as this book, based on the scripts, clearly demonstrates.
A major weakness is a lack of coherent structure. Clark, Bronowski, Cooke were concerned with well-defined stories of art, science and America. There is no such definition in Galbraith's book although the subject itself - the history of economic ideas - does not exclude such a treatment. Galbraith starts with Adam Smith, deals briefly with Malthus, Ricardo, Marx, Spencer, and Maynard Keynes in a gossipy biographical fashion. As a history of economic thought it is superficial to a degree. The theories of these great thinkers are merely glossed, never analyzed. Worse, there is no serious discussion at all of post-Keynesian economists such as Milton Friedman or Joan Robinson who has had an immense influence on the Third World; nor anything about the impact of the computer or serious model making in economics.
The economic history is even more superficial than the history of economic thought and at times, it is ludicrous. It is almost inconceivable that a scholar as learned as Galbraith can suggest that the Industrial Revolution was due to mechanical inventions in the textile industry, a concept that no economic historian has taken seriously for more than a century. Such lapses, and there are many, indicate the book's major weakness - a lack of serious scholarly concentration either on economic ideas or on their social consequences, which would have been feasible both for a television series or for a television book.
From what they wrote or said, it was crystal clear that Clark believed in art, Bronowski in human progress, Cooke in America with passionate conviction. And they imparted their enthusiasm as well as their knowledge to their viewers and readers. There is no such sense of commitment in Galbraith's book. Does he believe passionately in the value of economics - not merely in the Keynesian moment but before and after Keynes? Hard to tell. What commitment has he made to which brand of economics? Difficult to say. At times he seems to be for a planned economy, at others, against. A like ambivalence runs through his chapter on Marx or on the multinational corporation. He praises Switzerland but that is neither helpful nor illuminating for there is only a most superficial description of its economy and not a word on Switzerland as a refuge of capital.
At no point does the book give a clear understanding of the nature of economics - its discipline, its problems, the tools it uses, their quality or weaknesses, or the nature of the economist's imagination and aspirations. The inwardness of any subject is always fascinating and that was what was so good about Civilisation or the Ascent of Man - one learned what it felt like to be an artist or a scientist. Galbraith wanders away into anecdote and bits of personal history. One gets the impression, one hopes wrongly, that his ego fascinates him more than his profession.
This is a pity, for Galbraith is a man of obvious and outstanding gifts. He writes with the clarity that reflects high intelligence and sharp wit. At times he reminds one of a Bertrand Russell or a Voltaire cutting through the pomposity of the second rate, established in power. Take this: "The Victorians heard with grave attention that the Bank Rate had been raised. They did not know what it meant. But they knew it was an act of extreme wisdom." Time and time again he makes a telling and penetrating comment on the follies of men - usually those in power. His anecdotes, irrelevant as many of them are to his major theme, are always neatly told. And his character sketches from Adam Smith to Keynes are admirable. Yes, one says, Marx, Spencer, Dulles were like this, just like this. Also there are one or two quite excellent chapters on the economic problems of our world. There is a penetrating discussion of the equilibrium of poverty and another on the role of money.
That is what makes the book so saddening. Here is a scholar of wide knowledge and great experience with uncommon powers as a communicator of ideas who has failed. A greater concentration was required, a greater effort to create a satisfactory structure and far less egocentricity. A pity! At a superficial level this is an amusing and readable book but a great opportunity has been missed.