Consistent with his steadily maintained opinion that markets are fundamentally broken, if they exist at all, and that the state must everywhere step in, Galbraith had a lot of time for socialism—in practice, not just in principle. In the early 1970s, he called for America's biggest corporations to be brought directly under government control. On India, which he knew well (he served as ambassador there during the Kennedy administration), Galbraith thought its central-planning regime, modeled on the Soviet Union's, needed to be more intelligently managed rather than instantly abandoned. (India subsequently decided otherwise, and has been doing well ever since.) As late as 1984, he visited the Soviet Union and, as he wrote in The New Yorker, liked a lot of what he saw. As he was driven around, all the new housing and well-dressed people made a particularly favorable impression.
He was reminded of this article six years (and one political era) later in a piece in Fortune, where he had worked for a time. Galbraith wrote to the magazine to complain, saying that his words had been taken out of context. He had noted, he said, the difficulty that planned and command systems have "in dealing with the almost infinitely numerous, diverse, diversely styled and changing products of the modern consumer economy, products that Soviet citizens seek to have." And that was true, so Galbraith had—but it was a characteristically disingenuous (or perhaps self-deluding) defense. What had The Affluent Society, his best-known book, been about if not the waste, misdirection, and irrelevance to social well-being of those "numerous, diverse, diversely styled and changing products"? (The only mystery was why Soviet citizens wanted all that pointless stuff, with no big corporations to bully and brainwash them, and a government with presumably adequate "countervailing power," busy explaining how a comrade-worker-of-the month-award should suffice for anybody.)
Another remark often attributed to Galbraith is, "Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite." If he didn't say it, he might as well have. It has an authentically Galbraithian ring: It seems profound, and it's funny. But it encapsulates perhaps the worst error that a student of economy and society could have made in the past century—the idea that, under the surface, those two systems are pretty much alike, not least ethically. The common man has no standing, no real power, in either case. The main difference resides in which small group of people is actually in charge. That is something that Galbraith certainly appeared to believe. It is a main theme of his writings. And it is a travesty of the truth.
The respect and even reverence that the modern American Left has accorded to Galbraith—regarding him not just as a brilliantly effective writer, which he was, but also as a deep thinker about capitalism and society, which he was not—is telling. It reflects a tenacious reluctance to concede the ethical and material superiority of the capitalist system. For an intelligent and pragmatic liberal (in the American sense of that word) this surely ought to be a minimal, painless concession, barely any concession at all. Obviously, a radical, ambitious, and productive agenda of social and economic reforms could still be spread out before voters—reforms addressed to genuine failures of the market (which are numerous) and to legitimate egalitarian purposes of many kinds. But for some reason that does not quite satisfy.