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The Affluent Society ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (46)

    The lesson of the whole post-Keynesian world is that governments are now responsible for
    economic performance. Any notion that poor performance can't be remedied by the state is
    a reversion to 19th-century attitudes, which I'm not prepared to accept.
           -John Kenneth Galbraith to Mother Jones Magazine

    I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he
    feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would
    scarcely be enough to do much good.
           -Attrib. to Benjamin Jowett

Karl Marx was so profoundly wrong about so many issues and the Left has clung to his mistakes so tenaciously that it is hard to decide which of his errors has had the most deleterious affect on human affairs.  But I think it is safe to say that one of the worst ideas that he advocated, and which was swallowed whole hog by liberals, was the idea that materialism is the supreme and dertiminative motivation for human action.  Thus, he proposed, all of human existence boils down to the yearning to live at a subsistence level, to be clothed, fed and housed.  Now I'm not saying that these things aren't powerful motivators, I'd merely suggest that it is a failure of perspective to suggest that they are the be all and end all of life.  Sure when you are hungry, feeding yourself seems like the purpose of life, but to a drowning man there's no higher purpose than treading water.  Draw back from either of these immediate situations and you see that the sufferer has too narrow a perspective.

However, Galbraith, who was apparently little more than a garden variety liberal with some height, some panache and a facility with the language, wrote this entire book as a protest against the growth economy, as if it is some kind of iron clad law that once men's most basic material desires are met, they are fed, clothed and housed, then their fundamental purposes in life have been fulfilled.  He therefore assumes that any material consumption beyond this base level is unnatural and is created somehow by forces extrinsic to the individual and this consumption is a historical aberration that is being fostered by erroneous attitudes and insidious advertising.  Moreover, since these mistaken or malicious factors can not prevail for long, eventually people will realize that they are consuming beyond their needs and they will stop.   Therefore, since man, in his view, does not need more than the minimal requirements of existence and since modern society produces enough to satisfy these basic needs for every citizen, it is foolish to keep our focus on expanding the economy.  Instead, we should concentrate on redistributing what we have, yadda-yadda-yadda.

It is impossible to convey a sense of how incredibly misguided Galbraith's theories and his policy prescriptions have proven.  Here are just a few inanities to ponder.  He is totally dismissive of the idea that recipients of welfare benefits will be damaged by those very payments, scoffing at the notion that they will become dependents of the state.  He concludes that, having reached the point where our needs are taken care of, modern man will necessarily do one of three things: work fewer ours and days; or work less hard; or fewer people will choose to work.  He states with great confidence that operating the economy at capacity is per se inflationary, so he suggests that we build in a higher level of unemployment.  He prattles on about the current imbalance between public and private production, averring that public "goods" are being neglected in favor of production of private goods.  But what are these public goods?  How about medicine, education, etc. ?  He is so obtuse, or so trapped in a Social Welfare State mindset, that he can't even see that these too are fundamentally private goods. But perhaps the most incredible aspect of the book is his treatment of the American economy as a closed system; he never mentions our trading partners or the developing world and how they will impact the "Affluent Society".

So what we have here is a clarion call for the Great Society by a man who did not perceive, or foresee such basic megatrends as: the globalization of the economy; the massive entry of women (who by his definition would seem to have been fulfilled human beings when men were taking care of them ) into the workforce; the information age; the inflationary effects of government spending; etc...

But folks like JFK and LBJ listened to him and we got the Great Society at an estimated cost of $5 Trillion.  Not coincidentally, the Federal Deficit today stands at $5.6 Trillion.  Finally, in the past few years, we have begun to jettison Galbraithean social programs and we are running a full employment economy with zero % inflation and the deficit will be gone in ten years.   I think we can reasonably state that not only was this book spectacularly wrong, it actually did real damage to the United States economy and virtually destroyed several generations of Americans who became addicted to Welfare.

This one may edge out Silent Spring for the worst choice on this list, but the inclusion of both provides a valuable lesson about the invulnerability of liberal cant to contradictory facts and experience.


Grade: (F)


Book-related and General Links:
    -The 1929 Parallel (JKG, Atlantic Magazine)
    -The Crisis of Globalization ( James K. Galbraith, Dissent)
    -Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
    -Interview: One to One-- Henry Tischler
    -Interview: IN MEMORY: ROBERTSON DAVIES (The Newshour)
    -ESSAY : Medal of Foolishness :  Bill Clinton recently gave the nation's highest civilian award to John Kenneth Galbraith, a man who has spent his career peddling nonsense. (Virginia Postrel, Reason)
    -REVIEW: Are We Living Too High on the Hog? (EDWIN L. DALE JR., NY Times)
    -Review: of New Industrial State Capitalism Without Tears (ROBERT L. HEILBRONER, NY Review of Books)
    -Review: of Name-Dropping: From FDR On, All the Presidents Man: From FDR to LBJ with JKG (Jack Beatty, The Atlantic)

    -The Unfinished War: A product of the conflicting ambitions of the men who shaped it, the War on Poverty was ill-fated--but its fate need not be that of all anti-poverty programs (Nicholas Lemann, The Atlantic)
    -The Vanity of Human Markets: Robert Kuttner challenges the prevailing orthodoxy of laissez-faire economics (The Atlantic)
    -The Great Society Speech, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964
    -Marxist Glossary
    -etext: The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)
    -Yesterday's Tomorrows: 1968-1998  Books that got the future right--and wrong (REASON)