John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society”

John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society”

THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston, Houghton Mifflin. 1958.

J. K. Galbraith, the well-known Harvard professor, has worked out a plan for a socialist society. I don’t mean to frighten him or some of his faithful readers. (I don’t think he frightens easily.) But the simple fact is that this witty economist has set forth a series of proposals that spell out the sort of society that socialists have been talking about for years. And despite some drawbacks of detail, he has done so thoughtfully, with discernment of the complexities involved, and in a way that commands attention.

While Galbraith has approached his pleasant task in the most logical of fashions, beginning first with the theoretical framework of received economics (he uses the dry and somewhat acerb term “conventional wisdom” to describe traditionalist views) and then relentlessly pursuing their implications, we might do well to start with his conclusions. The outstanding fact in our society, he says, is that we possess the unquestioned ability to produce whatever it is that we care to produce. This being the case, we should be able to meet all our needs, both private as well as public.

The real situation, and it is difficult to quarrel with him, is that our productive system has reached a point of doubtful return. It has become a wellstuffed cornucopia that pours out an apparently endless flow of goods, all ostensibly seeking to satisfy the craving of the contemporary American to gorge himself on a bewildering array of commodities. These goods, privately produced and sold, create the image of an affluent society. Yet, in reality, we are much less prosperous than we think. When it comes to public services the amount of deprivation is almost depressing. Schools are old and overcrowded; there is a lack of parks and playgrounds; cities cannot clean their streets; and the ghastly exhaust of the monsters that pass for cars pollutes the skies. The author wonders aloud whether the desire for a nontoxic supply of air would suggest a “revolutionary dalliance with Socialism.”