praising galbraith

LI has been re-reading Galbraith’s The Affluent Society lately. It is part of our re-reading of a number of thinkers – Carson, Kapp, Karl Polanyi – who developed institutional economics into the premier tool of liberal thought. The ideas of these thinkers make contact with much of the “complexity” science stuff that the Santa Fe Institute investigates. Galbraith’s theme, in The Affluent Society, was to show how private affluence and public poverty – a poverty of the regulatory infrastructure, a poverty resulting from spreading pollution over the environment, a poverty within the healthcare and educational systems – coexisted in the United States. The United States was unique, at the time in which Galbraith wrote (1957) for its economic power and wealth, so it made a good test case for seeing how economics, embedded as the dominant value system within a society, grotesquely distorts that society. The worship of wealth itself, which has become the lingua franca of American society (and which causes the observer to be afflicted, at times, with pure disgust), was still not the pernicious factor in 1957 that it has become now. Although, in fairness, the opposition to the crimes of the corporate dominated state had fallen into desuetude in 1957 too – a point far removed from the heroic period of the thirties, in which social democracy was still a viable alternatives to the gospel of the wealthy.

Anyway, for those who haven’t read the book, the first couple grafs from the first chapter.

“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 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.”