One of the most influential books of our generation, a polemic against consumerism, "commercialism" and greed, turns 50 years old this year. And still the argument lives, continuing to tangle traffic at the crowded intersection of politics and culture, in what shapes up as a particularly pivotal year.
"The Affluent Society" was a best-selling rant by John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard economics professor, against the perceived excesses of the boom years following the end of World War II. The mills and factories of America were liberated to satisfy the pent-up demand of the generation deprived of nearly everything by the Depression and war. Such popular demand seemed, well, unseemly, within certain ivied walls. Scorning the good life for others is easy if you're a tenured professor at Harvard, observing from a protected and cozy sinecure, but the professor's book was enormously influential.
We can see this influence reflected today in the attitudes and arguments of environmentalists and other elites of the left, eager to midwife communal misery, ban things and tell the rest of us how to live. The Galbraith book ran against the conventional wisdom of the day. No one would have predicted that his arguments would become the new conventional wisdom.
"The Affluent Society" has gone through several printings, and contemporary critics of the growth of what Daniel Ben-Ami calls "popular prosperity" continue to make the Galbraith case whether they have read his book or not. Fifty years ago, memories of the Depression -- of the bread lines, the devastation of the Dust Bowl and the migration of thousands of Okies and "Arkies" to Southern California in search of enough work to earn something to eat -- were memories still fresh and raw. Only with the end of World War II did the economy begin to bestir itself: "In the period from the late 1940s to 1973," Daniel Ben-Ami writes on
Harry S. Truman, everybody's favorite Democratic president, was an unapologetic architect of the postwar boom of "popular prosperity." He praised growth in his State of the Union address in January 1949: "Government and business must work together constantly to achieve more and more jobs and more and more production -- which mean more and more prosperity for all the people."
A half-century later, this still resonates with most of us as the kind of common sense we want and expect in a president. But Professor Galbraith argued that since the end of the Depression, there had been such "a mountainous rise in well-being" that it was no longer necessary for America and Western Europe to promote prosperity. The pursuit of growth -- i.e., "a mountainous rise in well-being" -- would make some people rich but damage everybody else. He predicted that private affluence would only encourage public squalor. "The "counterpart of increasing opulence," he wrote, "will be deepening filth."
The deprivations endured by our parents and grandparents have long since been relegated to the bitter but dimming memories of a swiftly fading generation. Those earlier Americans knew actual hunger, a terror few of us can fathom. With a few shameful exceptions, the only Americans going to bed hungry tonight are Americans on a diet. But the arguments of those who have no confidence in the tastes and judgment of ordinary Americans take on new relevance with the expanding explosion of new things -- an abundance of prosperity unimagined in our grandparents' time.
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican faith, echoes Professor Galbraith in a new government study in Britain called the Good Childhood Inquiry. "The selling of lifestyles to children," he warns, "creates a culture of material competitiveness and promotes acquisitive individualism at the expense of the principles of community and co-operation." He rails, like John Kenneth Galbraith before him, at advertising aimed at children as "ruthless and exploitative," and cites the lament of many parents that the pervasive influence of television is "corrupting" and debilitating. Thoughtful parents will take heed of the archbishop's point, but these are not new complaints, and whether the government should be the nanny to guide us on the straight and narrow is a question at the heart of the debates leading to the election of a new president. That would be the change we can't believe in.