Richard Smith: How to stop affluence destroying us

The starting point for John Kenneth Galbraith’s book The Affluent Society is that for most of recorded history most people have been poor, meaning that they struggled to feed, clothe, and house those themselves and their families. (It may not have been that way before the start of farming—“the fall of man”—but Galbraith doesn’t discuss that.) He is concerned primarily with the failure of economics to adjust to the fact that societies like the US and the UK are now affluent, and he argues that that failure has profound—indeed, probably catastrophic—consequences for us all.

Galbraith’s book was named one of the New York Public Library’s “Books of the Twentieth Century,” and although published in 1958 (and tweaked in 1999), it has just as much relevance now as then. The power of the book lies not only in its argument but also in its style: Galbraith, a lover of Trollope, writes in a style like that of the 19th century novelist with a gift for witty phrases and one-liners. Four examples: “Wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding”; “Few people at the beginning of the 19th century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted”; “We face here the greatest vested interests, those of the mind”; and “Negative thoughts cannot but strike an uncouth note in a world of positive thinking.”

The two great problems of everybody being poor are security and inequality. Poor people are constantly insecure: crop failure, unemployment, or death of a breadwinner can destroy a family. Although most people were until recently poor, some were fabulously rich, giving Gini coefficients a whisker away from one. The distribution of the world’s wealth still has the shape of a champagne glass with the top quintile of the population representing the bowl and most of the wealth and the bottom four quintiles the stem, being equally poor.

The industrial revolution and particularly production made inroads on insecurity and inequality. People earned money working at making things, although often in terrible conditions (as today in Bangladesh’s garment factories). Food, clothing, and housing became more affordable. Insecurity and inequality were eroded, but have never disappeared even in wealthy countries. Growing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) became the aim of societies and remains so.No one should doubt,” observes Galbraith, “the convenience of a simple arithmetical measure of success in a world in which so many things are subjective.”

Unfortunately, argues Galbraith, increased production and growth of the GDP has become the obsession of economists and governments long after those in affluent societies have enough “stuff.” Because we have essentially all we need we have to be made to want things we don’t need—the job of the advertising industry. As Galbraith puts it: “Economic theory has managed to transfer the sense of urgency in meeting consumer need that once was left in a world where more production meant more food for the hungry, more clothing for the cold and more houses for the homeless to a world where increased output satisfies the craving for more elegant automobiles, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment—indeed, for the entire modern range of sensuous, edifying and lethal desires.”

The consequence of this overconsumption that concerns us most now is destruction of the planet, and in the penultimate sentence of his 1999 afterword Galbraith writes:Let us protect our affluence from those who, in the name of defending it, would leave the planet only with its ashes.” But Galbraith does not write about externalities and how producers do not have to pay for poisoning our air, water, and soil. What he dreads most from our affluence and obsession with production is our capacity to disregard those who are not affluent (think of those drowning in the Mediterranean and Channel) and the possibility of nuclear war. (His concern makes me think of how manufacturer of arms is of central importance to the economy of many developed countries, including Britain.) Beset with new worries of the pandemic, climate change, and being taken over by our machines, dread of nuclear war has slipped down the list of worries—but may well be where the climate crisis will lead us.

Galbraith’s book is best known now for his phrase of “private opulence and public squalor.” Roads are full of potholes, the police are understrength, social services are threadbare, school buildings are leaking, and most of the country can hardly be reached by public transport. “It is scarcely sensible,” writes Galbraith, “that we should satisfy our wants in private goods with reckless abundance, while in the case of public goods, on the evidence of the eye, we practice extreme self-denial….Even public services that prevent disorder must be defended. By contrast, the man who devises a nostrum for a non-existent need and then successfully promotes both remains one of nature’s noblemen.”

The book does describe responses to the problem, beginning with finding another aim from growing GDP, including “compassion, individual happiness and wellbeing, [and] the minimisation of community or other social tensions.” Galbraith advocates more investment in and expenditure on public goods and services, including “bringing the level of unemployment compensation much closer to the average weekly wage and to extend greatly the period of eligibility.”

Observing that “The survival of it [poverty] is remarkable” and that “We ignore it because we share with all societies at all times the capacity for not seeing what we do not wish to see,” Galbraith advocates a major attack on poverty. It’s clear that he was thinking mostly about the US as he wrote his book, but his formula should work worldwide: To keep poverty from being self-perpetuating “requires that investment in children from families presently afflicted be as little as below normal as possible. If the children of poor families have first-rate schools and school attendance is properly enforced; if the children, though badly fed at home, are well nourished at school; if the community has sound health services, and the physical well-being of children is vigilantly watched; if there is opportunity for advanced education for those who qualify regardless of means; and if, especially in the case of urban communities, housing is ample and housing standards are enforced, the streets are clean, the laws are kept and recreation is adequate—then there is a chance that the children of the very poor will come to maturity without inhibiting disadvantage.”

This is a good place to end my article on Galbraith’s book because this last quote—a single sentence of 106 words—illustrates his use of the classic devices of rhetoric, in this case the periodic sentence. The great example in English is Rudyard’s Kipling’s poem If, where tension builds as the sentence never seems to end. Galbraith was a great economist, a great writer, and a great human being.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.