John Kenneth Galbraith's classic investigation of private wealth and public poverty in postwar America
With customary clarity, eloquence, and humor, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith gets at the heart of what economic security means in The Affluent Society. Warning against individual and societal complacence about economic inequity, he offers an economic model for investing in public wealth that challenges “conventional wisdom” (a phrase he coined that has since entered our vernacular) about the long-term value of a production-based economy and the true nature of poverty. Both politically divisive and remarkably prescient, The Affluent Society is as relevant today on the question of wealth in America as it was in 1958.
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About the Author
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was a critically acclaimed author and one of America's foremost economists. His most famous works include The Affluent Society, The Good Society, and The Great Crash. Galbraith was the recipient of the Order of Canada and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, and he was twice awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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The Affluent Society
WEALTH IS NOT without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive. But, beyond doubt, wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding. The poor man has always a precise view of his problem and its remedy: he hasn't enough and he needs more. The rich man can assume or imagine a much greater variety of ills and he will be correspondingly less certain of their remedy. Also, until he learns to live with his wealth, he will have a well-observed tendency to put it to the wrong purposes or otherwise to make himself foolish.
As with individuals so with nations. And the experience of nations with well-being is exceedingly brief. Nearly all, throughout all history, have been very poor. The exception, almost insignificant in the whole span of human existence, has been the last few generations in the comparatively small corner of the world populated by Europeans. Here, and especially in the United States, there has been great and quite unprecedented affluence, which until now has been the accepted future.
The ideas by which the people of this favored part of the world interpret their existence, and in measure guide their behavior, were not forged in a world of wealth. These ideas were the product of a world in which poverty had always been man's normal lot and any other state was in degree unimaginable. This poverty was not the elegant torture of the spirit which comes from contemplating another man's more spacious possessions. It was the unedifying mortification of the flesh — from hunger, sickness and cold. Those who might be freed temporarily from such burden could not know when it would strike again, for at best hunger yielded only perilously to privation. It is improbable that the poverty of the masses of the people was made greatly more bearable by the fact that a very few — those upon whose movements nearly all recorded history centers — were very rich.
No one would wish to argue that the ideas which interpreted this world of grim scarcity would serve equally well for the contemporary United States. Poverty was the all-pervasive fact of that world. Obviously it is not of ours. One would not expect that the preoccupations of a poverty-ridden world would be relevant in one where the ordinary individual has access to amenities — foods, entertainment, personal transportation, and plumbing — in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago. So great has been the change that many of the desires of the individual are no longer even evident to him. They become so only as they are synthesized, elaborated and nurtured by advertising and salesmanship, and these, in turn, have become among our most important and talented professions. Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted.
It would be wrong to suggest that the economic ideas which once interpreted the world of mass poverty have made no adjustment to the world of affluence. There have been many adjustments, including some that have gone unrecognized or have been poorly understood. But there has also been a remarkable resistance. And the total alteration in underlying circumstances has not been squarely faced. As a result, we are guided, in part, by ideas that are relevant to another world; and as a further result, we do many things that are unnecessary, some that are unwise, and a few that are insane. Some are a threat to affluence itself.
The foregoing tells the purpose of this book. The first task is to see the way our economic attitudes are rooted in the poverty, inequality and economic peril of the past. Then the partial and implicit accommodation to affluence is examined. The next task is to consider the devices and arguments, some elaborate, some meretricious, some in a degree dangerous, by which, in vital matters, we have managed to maintain an association with the older ideas which stemmed from a world where nearly all were poor. For no one should suppose that there is anything convenient or agreeable about the assumption of affluence as an economic fact. On the contrary, it threatens the prestige and position of many important people. And it exposes many of us to the even greater horror of new thought. We face here the greatest of vested interests, those of the mind.
Finally, as we escape from the obsolete and contrived preoccupations associated with the assumption of poverty, we are able to see for the first time the new tasks and opportunities that are before us. This is not as reassuring as it sounds. One of the best ways of avoiding necessary and even urgent tasks is to seem to be busily employed on things that are already done.
Such is the purpose. But first there is some preparatory work. For we have not clung to obsolete and impalpable assumptions concerning our society purely as the result of obtuseness and ignorance. Powerful as these influences may be, they are not that strong. On the contrary, in matters of social discussion, there are active and pervasive influences which bind us to the past and which, on occasion, even cause us to try to recover the moribund. We must first be aware of our captivity by these forces if we are later to engineer an escape. That is the task of the next chapter.
No one will think this an angry book. Some may think it lacking in that beguiling modesty which is so much in fashion in social comment. The reader will soon discover that I think very little of certain of the central ideas of economics. But I do think a great deal of the men who originated these ideas. The shortcomings of economics are not original error but uncorrected obsolescence. The obsolescence has occurred because what is convenient has become sacrosanct. Anyone who attacks such ideas must seem to be a trifle self-confident and even aggressive. Yet I trust that judgments will not be too hasty. The man who makes his entry by leaning against an infirm door gets an unjustified reputation for violence. Something is to be attributed to the poor state of the door.
Originality is something that is easily exaggerated, especially by authors contemplating their own work. There are few thoughts in this essay, or so I would imagine, which have not occurred to other economists. The reaction of many will be to welcome the elaboration of ideas to which evidence has already brought them. But these are also days in which even the mildly critical individual is likely to seem like a lion in contrast with the general mood. These are days when men of all social disciplines and all political faiths seek the comfortable and the accepted; when the man of controversy is looked upon as a disturbing influence; when originality is taken to be a mark of instability; and when, in minor modification of the scriptural parable, the bland lead the bland. Those who esteem this world will not enjoy this essay. Perhaps they should return it to the shelf unread. For there are negative thoughts here, and they cannot but strike an uncouth note in a world of positive thinking.
No student of social matters in these days can escape feeling how precarious is the existence of that with which he deals. Western man has escaped for the moment the poverty which was for so long his all- embracing fate. The unearthly light of a handful of nuclear explosions would signal his return to utter deprivation if, indeed, he survived at all. I venture to think that the ideas here offered bear on our chances for escape from this fate. Illusion is a comprehensive ill. The rich man who deludes himself into behaving like a mendicant may conserve his fortune although he will not be very happy. The affluent country which conducts its affairs in accordance with rules of another and poorer age also forgoes opportunities. And in misunderstanding itself, it will, in any time of difficulty, implacably prescribe for itself the wrong remedies. This the reader will discover is, to a disturbing degree, our present tendency.
Yet it would be a mistake to be too gravely depressed. The problems of an affluent world that does not understand itself may be serious, and they can needlessly threaten the affluence itself. But they are not likely to be as serious as those of a poor world where the simple exigencies of poverty preclude the luxury of misunderstanding but where, also and alas, no solutions are to be had.CHAPTER 2
The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom
THE FIRST requirement for an understanding of contemporary economic and social life is a clear view of the relation between events and the ideas which interpret them. For each of these has a life of its own and, much as it may seem a contradiction in terms, each is capable for a considerable period of pursuing an independent course.
The reason is not difficult to discover. Economic like other social life does not conform to a simple and coherent pattern. On the contrary, it often seems incoherent, inchoate and intellectually frustrating. But one must have an explanation or interpretation of economic behavior. Neither man's curiosity nor his inherent ego allows him to remain contentedly oblivious to anything that is so close to his life.
Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem, and because they yield few hard tests of what exists and what does not, they afford to the individual a luxury not given by physical phenomena. Within a considerable range, he is permitted to believe what he pleases. He may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable or otherwise to his taste.
As a consequence, in the interpretation of all social life, there is a persistent and never-ending competition between what is right and what is merely acceptable. In this competition, while a strategic advantage lies with what exists, all tactical advantage is with the acceptable. Audiences of all kinds most applaud what they like best. And in social comment, the test of audience approval, far more than the test of truth, comes to influence comment. The speaker or writer who addresses his audience with the proclaimed intent of telling the hard, shocking facts invariably goes on to expound what the audience most wants to hear.
Just as truth ultimately serves to create a consensus, so in the short run does acceptability. Ideas come to be organized around what the community as a whole or particular audiences find acceptable. And as the laboratory worker devotes himself to discovering scientific verities, so the ghost writer and the public relations man concern themselves with identifying the acceptable. If their clients are rewarded with applause, these artisans are deemed qualified in their craft. If not, they have failed. By sampling audience reaction in advance, or by pretesting speeches, articles and other communications, the risk of failure can now be greatly minimized.
Numerous factors contribute to the acceptability of ideas. To a very large extent, of course, we associate truth with convenience — with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well- being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem. Speakers before the United States Chamber of Commerce rarely denigrate the businessman as an economic force. Those who appear before the AFL-CIO are prone to identify social progress with a strong trade union movement. But perhaps most important of all, people approve most of what they best understand. As just noted, economic and social behavior are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring. Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding. This is a prime manifestation of vested interest. For a vested interest in understanding is more preciously guarded than any other treasure. It is why men react, not infrequently with something akin to religious passion, to the defense of what they have so laboriously learned. Familiarity may breed contempt in some areas of human behavior, but in the field of social ideas it is the touchstone of acceptability.
Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability. They are highly predictable. It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the Conventional Wisdom.
The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group. On a great many modern social issues, as we shall see in the course of this essay, the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives. The test of what is acceptable is much the same for both. On some questions, however, ideas must be accommodated to the political preferences of the particular audience. The tendency to make this adjustment, either deliberately or more often unconsciously, is not greatly different for different political groups. The conservative is led by disposition, not unmixed with pecuniary self-interest, to adhere to the familiar and the established. These underlie his test of acceptability. But the liberal brings moral fervor and passion, even a sense of righteousness, to the ideas with which he is most familiar. While the ideas he cherishes are different from those of the conservative, he will be no less emphatic in making familiarity a test of acceptability. Deviation in the form of originality is condemned as faithlessness or backsliding. A "good" liberal or a "tried and true" liberal or a "true blue" liberal is one who is adequately predictable. This means that he forswears any serious striving toward originality. In both the United States and Britain, in recent times, liberals and their British counterparts of the left have proclaimed themselves in search of new ideas. To proclaim the need for new ideas has served, in some measure, as a substitute for them. The politician who unwisely takes this proclaimed need seriously and urges something new will often find himself in serious trouble.
We may, as necessary, speak of the conventional wisdom of conservatives or the conventional wisdom of liberals.
The conventional wisdom is also articulated on all levels of sophistication. At the highest levels of social science scholarship, some novelty of formulation or statement is not resisted. On the contrary, considerable store is set by the device of putting an old truth in a new form, and minor heresies are much cherished. And the very vigor of minor debate makes it possible to exclude as irrelevant, and without seeming to be unscientific or parochial, any challenge to the framework itself. Moreover, with time and aided by the debate, the accepted ideas become increasingly elaborate. They have a large literature, even a mystique. The defenders are able to say that the challengers of the conventional wisdom have not mastered their intricacies. Indeed, these ideas can be appreciated only by a stable, orthodox and patient man — in brief, by someone who closely resembles the man of conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom having been made more or less identical with sound scholarship, its position is virtually impregnable. The skeptic is disqualified by his very tendency to go brashly from the old to the new. Were he a sound scholar, he would remain with the conventional wisdom.
At the same time, in the higher levels of the conventional wisdom, originality remains highly acceptable in the abstract. Here again the conventional wisdom makes vigorous advocacy of originality a substitute for originality itself.
As noted, the hallmark of the conventional wisdom is acceptability. It has the approval of those to whom it is addressed. There are many reasons why people like to hear articulated that which they approve. It serves the ego: the individual has the satisfaction of knowing that other and more famous people share his conclusions. To hear what he believes is also a source of reassurance. The individual knows that he is supported in his thoughts — that he has not been left behind and alone. Further, to hear what one approves serves the evangelizing instinct. It means that others are also hearing and are thereby in process of being persuaded.
In some measure, the articulation of the conventional wisdom is a religious rite. It is an act of affirmation like reading aloud from the Scriptures or going to church. The business executive listening to a luncheon address on the immutable virtues of free enterprise is already persuaded, and so are his fellow listeners, and all are secure in their convictions. Indeed, although a display of rapt attention is required, the executive may not feel it necessary to listen. But he does placate the gods by participating in the ritual. Having been present, maintained attention, and having applauded, he can depart feeling that the economic system is a little more secure. Scholars gather in scholarly assemblages to hear in elegant statement what all have heard before. Again, it is not a negligible rite, for its purpose is not to convey knowledge but to beatify learning and the learned.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Affluent Society"
Copyright © 1998 John Kenneth Galbraith.
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Table of Contents
The Affluent Society,
The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom,
Economics and the Tradition of Despair,
The Uncertain Reassurance,
The American Mood,
The Marxian Pall,
The Paramount Position of Production,
The Imperatives of Consumer Demand,
The Dependence Effect,
The Vested Interest in Output,
The Bill Collector Cometh,
The Monetary Illusion,
Production and Price Stability,
The Theory of Social Balance,
The Investment Balance,
The Divorce of Production from Security,
The Redress of Balance,
The Position of Poverty,
Labor, Leisure and the New Class,
On Security and Survival,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,