Bill Steigerwald

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.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..