SO STRONGLY do Americans believe in their own
policies, institutions, and way of life that they do not take kindly to criticism of the United States by other countries. That negative reaction was present when Olaf Palme criticized United States involvement in Vietnam or when Charles de Gaulle took exception to almost everything American. But indignation is especially sharp when criticism originates from countries which are newly independent, poor, and, in the view of many Americans, hardly citadels of virtue.
Now, along comes John Kenneth Galbraith with the novel suggestion that there is worthy advice which the poor countries might offer their more fortunate industrialized brethren, to the mutual benefit of all. At least that was Galbraith's stated objective in a series of lectures which he gave in India in the spring of 1982 and which, somewhat revised, are published as The Voice of the Poor: Essays in Economic and Political Persuasion.
It is Galbraith's thesis that the ideologist and ideology of socialism or of capitalism have made the mistake of trying to foist on newly independent nations economic and political structures--and even military weapons-- inappropriate to the stage of such nations' political and economic development. Although there is much overlapping of stages, says Galbraith, "The economic design appropriate to the later stages of development cannot, without waste and damage, be transferred to the early stages. Nor as regards the new countries can the design and emphasis appropriate to a country in one stage of political, cultural, and economic sequence be applied in a later or earlier stage." Galbraith would have advocates of both groups review their own historical development and discover that neither philosophy can be adopted automatically by poor countries: socialism does not work well in poor countries because it requires a large and a competent administrative structure; similarly, the marvels of capitalism come only after, not before, education, political stability, and cultural development.
Galbraith believes that since 1960 the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to extend their "imperial ambitions" has in reality been a race to see which great power could lose influence most rapidly. Neither is likely to enjoy great success because the will to nationalism is the most powerful historical process in our time. Moreover there cannot be a battle between capitalism and communism until after economic development. At least as regards Africa since 1960 Galbraith has history on his side. Many of those most obsessed with the efforts of the Soviet Union to expand its influence take little comfort in the possibility that the Soviets will inevitably fail.
In discussing military weapons Galbraith comes back to his suggestion of an historical process: The most advanced military equipment is of little value if it is inappropriate to the conflict or if users are incapable of handling it. He rightly condemns the arms race between East and West amd the increased expenditure of scarce resources by poor countries on military weapons. Expecting criticism, he correctly calls "visionary" his own recommendation that poor countries should come together and "reject" modern weaponry. Here indeed Galbraith's vision is blurred. He sees the weapons flow as "resulting" in tensions and conflicts between recipient poor countries. In reality tensions between India and Pakistan, or Iran and Iraq, are centuries old or internally generated, albeit exacerbated by the availability of sophisticated weapons. Indeed these conflicts sometime result in the emphasis by new countries on the military establishments which Galbraith finds inimical to development.
Curiously out of place in these essays on what the poor should say to the rich is the book's final chapter. Galbraith, repeating his well-known criticism of Reaganomics, suggests fiscal policy, including wage and price restraints, as preferable to the emphasis on monetary policy as a way to reach price stability in the industrialized states. One doubts that this advice will be any more acceptable to Ronald Reagan coming through the mouths of the poor than directly from Galbraith.
Students of economic development will find in these essays a concise and enlightened view of the currently most widely held theories on economic development. Indeed, especially in the United States, developments in poor countries are inappropriately judged by our own achievements and worse, by a selective memory about how those achievements were obtained. However, many will question whether what Galbraith labels as advice from the poor countries to the rich might not also be a subtle suggestion of advice which the poor might appropriately make to themselves. For, in reality, especially in the early days of independence, the poor nations themselves mistakenly concluded that they could skip the evolutionary processes of development and adopt rather than adapt ideas and institutions. The landscape is littered with flashy buildings and uneconomic industrial schemes which absorbed money and resources that would have been better expended on agriculture and education.
The liberal Galbraith will find little receptivity to his views in President Reagan's Washington where free enterprise is sacrosanct; the struggle between capitalism and communism endures everywhere; peace comes through strength if not military superiority; and the United States' reverses in Vietnam and Iran resulted not from misplaced but too little effort.