In chapter 17 of The Affluent Society, Galbraith promotes the development and maintenance of “social balance,” a term which “suggests a satisfactory relationship between the supply of privately produced goods and services and those of the state” (189). This term, along with the primary argumentative method employed in its legitimization as a societal objective, exemplifies the rhetorical strategy that makes Galbraith so compelling. Galbraith’s strategy consists of creating the impression that he is knowledgeable, yet uniquely impartial, concerning economic matters. His ostensibly careful analysis of historical events, paired with statements that make use of disarming terms like “balance,” “suggests,” and “satisfactory” make it difficult for the reader to disagree with him on logical bases (I’m using “disarming” to convey the sense that the critical reader finds it difficult to antagonistically engage with the text, due to the tempered, non-inflammatory nature of its language). Galbraith works to convince his audience that, amongst those of comparable erudition, he is exceptionally capable of gauging the merit of arguments others have made, appropriating the components of such arguments which contemporary circumstances have allowed to prevail, and synthesizing them in a way that sheds some light on contemporary circumstances.
Even narrowing our scope to economic discourse, it would be foolish to argue that Galbraith was the first to assume the non-polemical position in order to render his work all the more convincing, by dint of the presumed objectivity associated with non-polemical writing. Galbraith, himself, identifies a similar device operating in Marx’s writings in chapter 6 of The Affluent Society, titled “The Marxian Pall.” However, Marx’s writings were of an unabashedly prophetic nature and this left his work vulnerable not only to the scathing critiques of his contemporaries, but those of subsequent generations as well. The efficacy of Galbraith’s approach rests in his ability to lay bare the flawed economic doctrines that give rise to various forms of conventional wisdom without imposing any explicit or otherwise conspicuous projections for the future on the basis of such errors. Galbraith asserts, “Ideas are inherently conservative. They yield…to the massive onslaught of circumstance with which they cannot contend” (17). Thus, Galbraith rhetorically shields himself and his own ideas within the text from the anachronistic critique that has plagued Marx’s writings. This is not to say that Galbraith resists the temptation to offer his own economic remedies. The Affluent Society is not a historical text, nor does it approach its subject with the scientific rigor that one might be led to believe. Galbraith’s interprets circumstances in a manner that allows him to forward an embedded agenda, while making it appear as if his conclusions are products of well-reasoned inductive, rather than deductive, analysis.In chapter 17, his argument inhabits a space outside of, not inbetween, two ideologies that he quite conveniently terms “liberal” and “conservative”: “Liberals are obliged to argue that the services be paid for by progressive taxation which will reduce inequality…Conservatives rally to the defense of inequality – although without ever quite committing themselves in such uncouth terms – and oppose the use of income taxes” (195). To my knowledge, the most common pattern of argumentation within economic discourse – and, for that matter, all discourses I am familiar with – consists of developing a stark Manichean juxtaposition of two entities, and then proceeding to aggrandize the “good” and pummel the “evil.” By shunning both, Galbraith makes takes the high road, seeming to set partisanship aside and view the issue objectively. He explains, “Since the debate over inequality cannot be resolved, the money is frequently not appropriated and the service not performed. It is a casualty of the economic goals of both liberals and conservatives, for both of whom the questions of social balance are subordinate to those of production and, when it is evoked, of inequality” (195). Galbraith argues against both sides of the argument, claiming that they are misguided in their objectives. His argument functions most effectively when this high road-mentality is en vogue, as it most certainly is within our current political and academic climates.
Ali (Nima) Rad