Popular Economics. John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman and the Shaping of Public Opinion in the United States and Great Britain, 1955-1985


Monday, March 19, 2018, 4:15pm to 5:30pm


RCC Seminar Room, 26 Trowbridge St., Cambridge MA

This project aims to investigate the fall of (post-)Keynesian economics and the rise of economic neoliberalism as part of a broader cultural change from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. This is mainly done from a bottom-up perspective and by exploring an exceptional corpus of sources. During his career, Harvard Economics Professor and unorthodox (post-)Keynesian and institutionalist thinker John Kenneth Galbraith received hundreds of letters from readers and viewers, mainly from the United States and Great Britain, commenting on his popular books and appearances on TV. In the same time span, even more readers and viewers mailed their reactions to Galbraith’s rival, University of Chicago Economics Professor Milton Friedman, one of the founding exponent of neoliberal free market economics. Next to Galbraith’s and Friedman’s popular writings and the contemporary newspaper reviews of their work, these letters build the corpus of sources.


The letters make it possible to track the circulation of competing ideas about the economy in society. Based on the exploratory survey of lay comments from the United States from the late 1970s and early 1980s the working assumption is that laypeople, believing that the future of their country or even civilization as whole was at stake, turned to economists for explanations and solutions. Thus, the letters mirror the widespread anxieties of the 1970s cultural crisis. While Galbraith painted a complex picture of the current situation and presented nuanced solutions, his commentators did not share his cautious optimism regarding the future. In contrast, Friedman did not only receive significantly more letters but his focus on the government as the root of all evil and his black and white free market solution sparked enthusiasm among viewers and readers.


To further investigate why the free market solution was more vividly supported than ideas that stood in the Keynesian tradition, my project analyzes letters to Galbraith and Friedman. Next to the analysis of newspaper reviews, this helps to provide a better understanding of the role that economics played in society and how economic knowledge was related to the political events and cultural discourses and narratives in the period under investigation.


Speaker: Maurice Cottier, Visiting Fellow at the Department of History at Harvard University