John Galbraith’s The Affluent Society attempts to destabilize the value placed on what he calls the ‘conventional wisdom’ of economic thought. Tracing the central tradition of economic theory from its origins in the eighteenth century (specifically through Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus), Galbraith emphasizes the resulting tendency to focus on inequality and the inevitability of an impoverished class. He addresses the damage that is potentially done by relying on ‘conventional wisdom’, stating that our reliance on outdated ideas is, among other things, “a threat to affluence itself” (2). This reliance on the central tradition has, to some extent, culminated in the American preoccupation with production. He finds that, in our current position of prosperity, this focus is more damaging than rewarding, especially given the inconsistent system by which we attribute value to production. In chapter 9, “The Paramount Position of Production”, he outlines several pithy examples of this state of affairs: “We set great store by the increase in private wealth but regret the added outlays for the police force by which it is protected” (109). He suggests that this too derives from the central tradition (out of which the ‘conventional wisdom’ has always grown), noting in chapter 7 (“Inequality”) that the ostentatious display of material goods was one of the only real distinctions between classes within society. These two chapters are very much in conversation with one another, in that Galbraith posits the notion that an interest in eliminating inequality has decreased in lieu of a desire to increase production. He cites three benefits of wealth as being no longer ever-present in the minds of lower classes: “satisfaction in the power with which [wealth] endows the individual”, “physical possession of things which money can buy”, and “esteem that accrues to the rich man” (72). In the face of the current economic condition, his assertion that these factors are less relevant in the average mind because of the rise of overall production (he calls it an “alternative to redistribution” (78)) seems jarring and outdated. Chapter 7 is one in which his later additions to the original text appear disjointed; an example from 1970 about the rapid growth of inequality, for example, makes it hard to believe that it has really “faded as an issue” (71). Furthermore, he mentions that it has become “bad taste” to criticize the exorbitant wealth of the wealthy—a statement that no longer holds true in present, post-bubble America.
His discussion of the alleged evils of public spending, however, is especially relevant in the modern world. He says: “In one branch of the conventional wisdom, the American economy is never far removed from socialism, and the movement toward socialism may be measured by the rise in public spending” (111). Though he makes a legitimate point in connecting the fear of “social revolution” (111) to government-driven production via public spending, his division of ‘conventional wisdom’ into different branches undermines his overall goal. As was mentioned in class, this suggests a weakness with the general notion of ‘conventional wisdom’. Though it became the kernel for which the entire book was known, the concept he ultimately presents does veer slightly from the initial image of overarching, unified social thought. The indubitable truth of his statement regarding public spending overshadows the weakness in his definition of ‘conventional wisdom’; in fact, the unfortunate prevalence of this argument today lends even more credibility to a sense of ‘conventional wisdom’. To me, Galbraith’s text is a mix of these types of assertions: some poignantly descriptive and aware, others irrelevant in the face of a vastly different modern age.
Katie (Katherine) Carroll