George Will

Advertising, Galbraith argued, was a leading cause of America's "private affluence and public squalor." By that he meant Americans' consumerism, which produced their deplorable reluctance to surrender more of their income to taxation, trusting government to spend it wisely.

If advertising were as potent as Galbraith thought, the advent of television -- a large dose of advertising, delivered to every living room -- should have caused a sharp increase in consumption relative to savings. No such increase coincided with the arrival of television, but Galbraith, reluctant to allow empiricism to slow the flow of theory, was never a martyr to Moynihan's axiom that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.

Although Galbraith coined the phrase "conventional wisdom," and thought of himself as the scourge of groupthink, "The Affluent Society" was the distilled essence of the conventional wisdom on campuses. In the 1960s, that liberalism became a stance of disdain, describing Americans not only as Galbraith had, as vulgar, but also as sick, racist, sexist, imperialist, etc. Again, and not amazingly, voters were not amused when told that their desires -- for big cars, neighborhood schools and other things -- did not deserve respect.

But for liberals that was precisely the beauty of Galbraith's theory. If advertising could manufacture demands for whatever corporations wanted to supply, there was no need to respect markets, which bring supply and demand into equilibrium.

"The Affluent Society" was the canonical text of modern liberalism's disparagement of the competence of the average American. This liberalism -- the belief that people are manipulable dolts who need to be protected by their liberal betters from exposure to "too much" advertising -- is one rationale for McCain-Feingold. That law regulating campaigns embodies the political class' belief that it knows just the right amount of permissible political speech.

Of course if advertising really could manufacture consumer wants willy-nilly, few new products would fail. But many do. "The Affluent Society," postulating the awesome power of manufacturers to manufacture whatever demand they find it convenient to satisfy, was published nine months after Ford Motor Co. put all of its marketing muscle behind a new product, the Edsel.

Small wonder that a conservative wit has surmised that the wisdom of economists varies inversely with their heights. Milton Friedman, 93, is 5 feet tall.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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