I read John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society more than 15 years ago in an edition, the fourth, that was then already 10 years old.
I don’t know how the argument of that book has held up over time or whether it is still well-regarded within the discipline of economics. But yesterday I found myself plucking this book down from the shelf for two reasons: 1) More than 14 million Americans are unable to find work, and 2) I am one of them.
Given that, a few passages from Galbraith’s book seem particularly timely.
On “the situation”:
The situation is this. Production for the sake of the goods produced is no longer very urgent. … At the same time, production does remain important and urgent for its effect on economic security. When [people] are unemployed, society does not miss the goods they do not produce. The loss here is marginal. But the [people] who are without work do miss the income they no longer earn. Here the effect is not marginal. It involves all or a large share of the [people’s] earnings and hence all or a large share of what they are able to buy. (pg. 140)
On “highly convenient indifference”:
A system of morality is at stake. For what we regard as the Puritan inheritance was soundly grounded on economic circumstance. … The central or classical tradition of economics was more than an analysis of economic behavior and a set of rules for economic polity. It also had a moral code. The world owed no [person] a living. Unless [they] worked, [they] did not eat. The obligation thus imposed required [them] to labor on [their] own behalf and therewith on behalf of others. Failure to work, even when it could be afforded, was offensive to what came to be called the Victorian, but could as well have been named the economic, morality. “To live in idleness, even if you have the means, is not only injurious to yourself, but a species of fraud upon the community.”
But if the goods have ceased to be urgent, where is the fraud? Are we desperately dependent on the diligence of the worker who applies maroon enamel to the functionless metal of a motorcar? The idle man may still be an enemy of himself. But it is hard to say that the loss of his effort is damaging to society. Yet it is such damage which causes us to condemn idleness.
Again, the fact that a [person] was damaging society by [their] failure to produce has been, in the last analysis, the basis for a fair amount of highly convenient indifference and even cruelty in our behavior. The churches have long featured the virtue of loving one’s neighbor. But the practical churchman has also recognized the need to reconcile this with basic economic necessities. A good deal of practical heartlessness was what served the social good. … In the United States, as in other western countries, we have for long had a respected secular priesthood whose function it has been to rise above questions of religious ethics, kindness and compassion and show how these might have to be sacrificed on the altar of the larger good. That larger good, invariably, was more efficient production. The sacrifice obviously loses some of its point if it is on behalf of the more efficient production of goods for the satisfaction of wants of which people are not yet aware. It is even more tenuous, in its philosophical foundations, if it is to permit the more efficient contriving of wants of which people are not aware. And this latter is no insignificant industry in our time. …In the world of scarcity, the need for goods was, as just noticed, powerfully reinforced by the compulsion to work. The individual who did not work, unless rarely favored by circumstance, was penalized by a total loss of income. That penalty still persists widely even though it now enforces the production of relatively unimportant goods. (pp. 210-212)
On “a comfortable disregard for those excluded” from affluence:
There is … the danger that, with affluence, we will settle into a comfortable disregard for those excluded from its benefits and its culture. And there is the likelihood that, as so often in the past, we will develop a doctrine to justify the neglect. Indeed, we are already well on the way to doing so … — the thesis that the rich have not been working because of too little income and the poor have been idling because of too much. That is social perception and justification at an unduly primitive level. More influential is the argument that stresses the inefficiency of government and sees its costs and taxes (those for defense apart) as a threat to liberty. From this comes the philosophical basis for resistance to government help to the poor. … Such doctrine, once again, allows the affluent to relax not with the ostentatious cruelty of Social Darwinism, but nonetheless in the contented belief that no ameliorative action is possible or socially wise. (pg. 262)