In Chapter 17, entitled “The Theory of Social Balance,” of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, he spends some time, as well as his imagination, in exploring the real and potential threats posed by a disjunction between the societal aspects of private and public workings, mainly with private goods and public services. In the beginning he sets up the chapter with a declaration of our failure “to see the importance, indeed the urgent need, of maintaining a balance between the two” (Galbraith, 186). Following this statement, he guides us in our imaginative understanding of this failure by offering up a futuristic, yet frighteningly believable, story/glance, into the scene of an upper-class American family on their way to camp out and enjoy the American countryside, that is decayed to a point of it posing as “a menace to public health and morals” (188). He steps in further to suggest their reflections at the end of this leisurely stroll to be “on the curious unevenness of their blessings,” and then he turns the attention towards us, as the readers, by asking, “Is this, indeed, the American genius?” (188).
From my first read of this chapter, its overall argument for balance, its warnings about imbalance, and its almost explicit references to other works we have been reading in this class seemed all very obvious. There is the quote pulled straight out of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom at the end of the chapter; there is even mention of peace time economies and markets as well as public spending on defense, which stood in contrast, rather in non-satirical agreement with Lewin’s Report from Iron Mountain. However, this chapter, from its very title, calls me back to Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.
Although I am not certain if Galbraith uses the term balance more times than Eisenhower, both strive to make the warning clear that the failure to maintain or achieve a balance will have negative effects on society. Eisenhower stresses “the need to maintain balance in and among national programs, balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages, balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable, balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual” (Eisenhower, 1). Unlike Eisenhower’s more serious tone in his address and warnings to the country, Galbraith flowers his text with hints of sarcasm and implicit jabs at more neoliberal theorists. For instance, in describing residents of a city, he says that they “should have a nontoxic supply of air suggests no revolutionary dalliance with socialism” (187). In this way, Galbraith is anticipating the neo-liberalist and neo-conservative critique, their fearing a situation in which the public services would overwhelm and dominate private and individual capacity. In another example discussing potentially realistic conditions concerning sanitation services, Galbraith points out that “the counterpart of increasing opulence will be deepening filth. The greater the wealth, the thicker will be the dirt” (190). Galbraith’s method in offering several somewhat elementary examples of things to consider when discussing the merits of maintaining the “Social Balance” (189), as he calls it, seems much more effective than Eisenhower’s words of warning despite the ethos of a former President. Or perhaps this is the cause of my interpretive cynicism. In any case, the different rhetorical operations used by Galbraith and Eisenhower both strive for a similar argument; keeping the balance.
The third of Eisenhower’s aforementioned balancing acts, between the necessary and the leisurely stands in most harmonious conversation with Galbraith’s initial story about the upper class American family. In this scene Galbraith paints, water is polluted and the air has “the stench of decaying refuse” (188), with the family being oblivious as to how their cherished American countryside is no longer another of their blessings. In relation to Eisenhower’s claim, the “comfortably desirable” has not completely collapsed due to its imbalance or sacrifice and subjugation of the “clearly necessary.” Galbraith writes “All private wants, where the individual can choose, are inherently superior to all public desires which must be paid for by taxation and with an inevitable component of compulsion” (198). With the obvious disadvantage that public desires has to deal with, is there any chance of restoring this and doing away with the hierarchy? Or does such a hoped for balance offset the possibility of horizontality because of the need for someone to act in maintaining the balance, in other words, working against the unruly private, individual desires? Or is it possible that although the circumstances do not seem favourable, Galbraith’s portrait of the family is a scene where the private or the individual is able to overcome such public decay and “social disorder” (Galbraith, 193)? If one were to believe that public or collective efforts could still lead to such societal and environmental destruction, then is this enough of an argument for private desires and capacity to reign supreme over the possible menace of public (governmental) power? If this is the “American genius” then hopefully, as Galbraith ends the chapter with, it is because “men of high position are allowed, by a special act of grace, to accommodate their reasoning to the answer they need. Logic is only required in those of lesser rank” (199).