In Defense of Affluence

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Jun 05, 2008 1:14 PM
In Defense of Affluence

In 1958 liberal John Kenneth Galbraith wrote his classic “The Affluent Society,” an enormously popular book on the “economics of abundance” that complained that while America’s private sector was becoming ever-more wealthy it was doing so at the expense of a squalid and underfunded public sector.

The Harvard economics professor, famous for his accessible writing style, criticized America’s consumer-mad economy and the virtually unchallenged notion by policymakers that higher and higher economic growth was a measure of economic prosperity.

Galbraith, who coined the eternal term “conventional wisdom” to describe the 1950s economic thinking he did not agree with, also expressed his dislike for advertising, fretted about the growing gap between rich and poor and the damage the economy was doing to the environment, and called for lots more government spending on things like education and health care.

Conservatives and libertarians hated “The Affluent Society,” of course. Liberals and socialists loved it madly -- and still do. It sold more than 1 million copies, sat on The New York Times bestseller list for almost the entire year and was a fixture on high school and college reading lists through the ‘60s.

Galbraith's critiques of growth, opulence and advertising have since become part of the liberal mainstream, but it's not John Chamberlain's fault. In 1958 the libertarian-leaning conservative writer and editor reviewed “The Affluent Society” unfavorably for The Freeman, the magazine of the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education.

Chamberlain pointed out the unflattering truth that Galbraith was an elitist who didn’t like individual human beings very much.

He let “his skills spin off into social essays that betray an essential disrespect for individual human beings as such,” Chamberlain wrote. “Professing to care for humane goals, he sees people only in the mass.

“To Galbraith, it is the 'countervailing power' of such large and amorphous entities as the 'farm bloc' or the big industrial union or the National Association of Manufacturers or the ADA or the 'consumers,' which counts. It is never Joe or Jim, and it is never you and me.”

Chamberlain said “there is just enough truth in Galbraith's picture of what American people have chosen to do with their riches to make his quest of ‘social balance’ seem plausible. But Galbraith is not willing to limit himself to the role of being a critic of taste.

"Instead of pointing out to people that they might better put their money into education on a private basis that would permit free choice of teachers or into utility cars with a low gas consumption rate and a short wheel base or into voluntary medical cooperatives, all of which would permit an individual the mature exercise of his own will, Galbraith falls back into a Papa Knows Best attitude. To protect people against Madison Avenue, he would send the tax collector around to relieve them of a good part of their income.

“Personally, I find this superior, top-down attitude offensive. It is an echo of Thurman Arnold's old theory that the government should treat people as the superintendent of an insane asylum treats his charges, as wards to be watched over and provided for."

In conclusion Chamberlain said, presciently, that Galbraith’s famous book “contains the subtle poison that will someday drug us into reconstituting society in the image of a public institution, with only the ‘planning’ officials exercising the power of choice. If enough people listen to Galbraith, the ‘underlying population,’ to use Veblen's old phrase, will simply be on the receiving end of whatever the government wants to dispense in the name of ‘social balance.' And the ‘social balance’ will be maladministered, at that.”