Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith

by Chris Sturr | May 03, 2006

Last week was a grim one for my apartment’s non-fiction shelves—the two authors whose complete works, each volume thumb-worn, graced them, died: on Tuesday, Jane Jacobs, at 87, and on Sunday, John Kenneth Galbraith, at 97.

Jacobs, in contrast to the urban planners of the 1950s—in contrast to her nemesis Robert Moses—championed an intensely human model for living among others. Not for her the civil engineer’s dream of soaring superhighway ramps—her Death and Life of Great American Cities finds beauty instead in thriving neighborhoods with living streets, familiar faces, local businesses. Places in which to work, play, live, and dream. Cities and the Wealth of Nations applies the same humane vision to the problems of national economies in the 1970s and early 1980s, arguing that businesses in isolation from human life—think both suburban office parks and special economic zones—don’t live up to their potential. They may produce, but they don’t innovate well and they certainly don’t contribute much to the places they happen to be located. And Jacobs strengthens her criticism by offering an alternative model of economic development based on careful observation of existing vibrant economies. Jacobs’ works are essential reading for everyone who struggles against corporate globalization and its disregard for its effects on the human scale.

As, too, are John Kenneth Galbraith’s works. Galbraith applied a similar humanity to economics, though on a larger scale than Jacobs. His best-known book, The Affluent Society, displayed his concern for the ill effects of inequality, especially in times and places of great overall wealth. It was a concern that he held throughout his career, and one that his son, James K. Galbraith, continues to study. But Galbraith’s concept of inequality went further than inequality of wealth or income—he was also concerned with inequality of power. The New Industrial State explores the structures that allow corporations to concentrate power without accountability, and both that book and Economics and the Public Purpose offer Galbraith’s solution to the problem—maintaining a countervailing power in the form of unions, other citizens’ organizations, and good government.

Both Jacobs and Galbraith refuted the neoliberal vision of sovereign economies and worked against the policies it entails. The proponents of that vision and those policies tout them as increasing human freedom, but theirs is a very narrow vision of freedom. Neoliberal policies do promote grand enterprise. But when the world operates at heroic scale, only heroes can operate in the world. Jacobs and Galbraith both devoted their lives to bringing the context of our lives back down to a human scale. Canadian critic Robert Fulford wrote, “Jacobs came down firmly on the side of spontaneous inventiveness of individuals, as against abstract plans imposed by governments and corporations.” Galbraith had more faith in government, as the chosen representative of the people, but the spirit of his work was much the same. The world is poorer for both their absences.

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