Commentary Magazine


The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith

Our Boondoggling Democracy
The Affluent Society.
by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Houghton Mifflin. 356 pp. $5.00.

 

Despite all the polysyllabic rhetoric about “social science,” about exploratory hypotheses and scrupulous verification and laborious system-building, it is nevertheless the obvious case that important social theories convince us by their self-evidence. We read a book; and we achieve an understanding of our situation. (To be sure, we may later on change our mind and conclude that we had deceived ourselves, or that the world had moved beyond the scope of our original comprehension. But then it is time for another book.) A social theory enlightens us with its very statement; it discovers the world we live in; we see the explanation of why things are happening as they are. The impact of such books as Berle and Means’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property, Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, and Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd can be explained in no other way. These books did not invincibly demonstrate a set of conclusions; their special quality was their ability to persuade people who had never even read them. They were, above all, plausible and reasonable, and they allowed us to make sense of our social experience in a way that other books at hand did not.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society is, in my opinion, such a book. I am not an economist, and I take it for granted that the academic fraternity may discover all sorts of errors in it. . . . But I do not expect such errors to detract from the overwhelming truth of the book. This is the American economy and the American society, as we have personal and repeated knowledge of it. It is the America where New York’s subways, on the verge of bankruptcy, hand out free rides in exchange for soap coupons; where the nursing profession is advised by a leading sociologist to revise its public image from that of the sweet sister of mercy to the “hard-boiled pro,” as the sole method of gaining a decent scale of wages; where people have superb dishwashers and miserable systems of garbage collection; where an advertising man who dreams up a new depilatory is richly rewarded, while a professor who suggests a new public service is regarded as an impractical wastrel; where the growth of the Gross National Product, in which pornography, prostitution, and narcotics have the same status as wealth as do teaching, preaching, or building, is regarded as an index of a rising standard of living; where more people die prematurely of overeating than of malnutrition—a crazy world, but indisputably our very own.

One can expect Mr. Galbraith’s academic critics to be all the more vigilant in that he is frequently sarcastic (though not, to my mind, sufficiently so) at their expense. (E.g.: “Restraint on competition and [on] the free movement of prices . . . have been principally deplored by university professors on lifetime appointments. Such security of tenure is deemed essential for fruitful and unremitting thought.”) His style, too, will offend them: it is urbane, witty, readable, and even shows signs of wishing to be moderately “popular.” This last, I myself think, is a tactical error. The Affluent Society has too much good journalism in it, and not quite enough gravitas. Books that aim to have a profound effect on opinion should not be as pleasurable to read as this one is. It fails to impress immediately with its seriousness; and there are even moments when one wonders if Mr. Galbraith knows just how radical a book he has written. No doubt he does; but he should not have allowed us the luxury of having to suppose it.

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Mr. Galbraith argues, in effect, that the American economy as presently organized is an enormous boondoggle—only one which is carried out by private enterprise rather than public; that this fact is obscured by what he calls, with amiable irony, the “conventional wisdom,” which still centers its attention on the urgencies of production that were suitable to the economy of a hundred years ago; that to obscurity is added obfuscation, since this peculiar species of social organization relieves us of the necessity of having to face otherwise intractable problems; that the system nevertheless produces quite insoluble problems of its own. . . . There is more, much more, for it is a rich and suggestive book, and a conscientious reviewer must feel helpless at the prospect of trying to summarize all of its insights. What I shall do, therefore, is simply list the six Galbraithian propositions that seem to me the most important—adding the caveat, however, that in the book itself there are no propositions, only skillful analysis and cogent argument.

  1. The central tradition of economic thought, as founded by Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus, understandably emphasized the “rational allocation of resources”—i.e., that distribution of economic factors which would maximize production. Economic thought today, in an age of material abundance, still regards as rational whatever leads to increased production, without reflecting on whether or not this goal itself can still be regarded as rational, and in the face of a common-sense suspicion that it cannot.
  2. The emphasis on productivity has received additional force from the awareness that an economy fully employed in maximizing production incidentally “solves” two other troublesome problems: security and equality. The worker is secure in his job, the corporation in its profit, while the general increase in wealth leads to both a narrowing of inequalities and a relative loss of interest in those that do remain.
  3. But in our scheme of things, production means private production to meet individual wants. Public services, in contrast, which are financed by taxation, are regarded as a more or less necessary burden upon the economy (even though they may patently—e.g., as in the case of education—help increase our material well-being). The consequence is an absurd “social imbalance” in which all private wants are taken to be inherently superior to all public needs. A juvenile delinquent can easily buy a car, but the community cannot afford to hire an extra policeman to prevent him from raising hell in it.
  4. Individual “wants,” moreover, are no longer the traditional desires for food, clothing, and shelter, but are themselves artificially created (via advertising, salesmanship, and installment-buying) in order to keep the machinery of production going full blast. We manufacture “wants” along with the products to “satisfy” them, and thus keep our economy going round and round like a squirrel wheel.
  5. One of the side-effects of this lunatic economics is to diminish our national security. The money which, on a purely arithmetical calculation, we might seem to be able to afford for the purposes of military expenditure, foreign investment and aid, etc., is not in fact available since that would involve a curtailment of these peculiar “wants,” which by now have the status of “needs.” Such a curtailment would be most impolitic, because people have been convinced, by an elaborate and expensive procedure, that not to satisfy these “needs” is to suffer a deprivation. And if we were successful in persuading them to the contrary, a lot of people would suddenly lose jobs and livelihood.
  6. Not only does the squirrel wheel provide an odd model for the economics of a good society. It has the further disadvantages of ineluctably wrecking itself on the snags of either inflation or depression. An economy that is constandy expanding to satisfy the “needs” which it simultaneously creates must, in the absence of any administrative control over wages and prices, be an economy in a state of perpetual inflation. Efforts to stop this inflation through measures of fiscal policy, while economically feasible, will result in large-scale unemployment if they are pressed so far as to be effective. And large-scale unemployment, with all its suffering, is intolerable and absurd in a society suffering from an embarras de richesses.

This gives only an outline—not even a skeleton—of the book’s originality and percipience. The Affluent Society is by far the most serious critique of “welfare capitalism” that has been written in the post-Marxian era. (It is perhaps worth remarking that, though Mr. Galbraith will be denounced in some quarters as a “socialist,” he clearly hasn’t the faintest interest in that doctrine.) Its implications are at least as much in the realm of moral philosophy as political economy; and they are so numerous and extensive as to be almost frightening to contemplate. Mr. Galbraith himself does not pursue them very far. He does suggest, as immediate measures, a self-adjusting unemployment insurance program which will pay nearly full wages in times of crisis and more modest sums in times of high prosperity. He also urges a more common reliance on the sales tax as a fund-raising measure for public services. The first recommendation will alarm business executives who still hold the venerable opinion (never applied to themselves) that men won’t work unless the “iron laws” of economics constrain them to. The second will outrage merchants and those liberals who are so hypnotized by egalitarianism (and its political possibilities) that they are willing to neglect large problems in order to make “fighting issues” out of smaller ones. Another of his recommendations, for a national prices and wage policy (i.e., controls) in specific industries, will displease just about everyone. That is as it should be, Mr. Galbraith has moved intellectually into the second half of the 20th century, whereas the “conventional wisdom” lags behind, mouthing its outworn slogans, fighting its outworn battles, haunted by outworn anxieties, while it moves frantically around the vicious circle we are fixed in.

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