Sunday, March 7, 2010

Precis: Galbraith's Pretense of Nonpartisanship

In John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, he coins several terms (including Conventional Wisdom, The Dependence Effect, and Social Balance), but the only one of these terms to enter the popular lexicon is Galbraith’s “conventional wisdom.” In Chapter 2, he establishes the role that conventional wisdom plays in alleviating the frustration that necessarily accompanies society’s attempt to make sense out of the complex and often senseless economic system. It fulfills this function by presenting as truths certain ideas which are simply “what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life…what contributes most to self-esteem” (7). The “truths” generated in this fashion are always nearly universally acceptable, highly stable and highly predictable (8). In order to further stress this universal acceptability, Galbraith makes it a point to state, “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group. On a great many modern social issues, as we shall see in the course of this essay, the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives…On some questions, however, ideas must be accommodated to the political preferences of the particular audience” (8). However, Galbraith writes, both the conventional wisdom of liberals and the conventional wisdom of conservatives is equally misguided, as all conventional wisdom tends to be—for the conservative, it is rooted in “disposition, not unmixed with pecuniary self-interest” (8), while the source of conventional wisdom for the liberal is “moral fervor and passion, even a sense of righteousness” (8). The conventional wisdom can only be toppled by “the march of events” (11), never by ideas. However, Galbraith makes the rather weak concession that "few men are unuseful and the man of conventional wisdom is not...Every society must be protected from a too facile flow of thought...Ideas need to be tested by their ability, in combination with events, to overcome inertia and resistance. This inertia and resistance the conventional wisdom provides" (16).

The ambiguous notion of conventional wisdom appears frequently through The Affluent Society representing the epitome of backwards thinking and the ultimate deterrent against the economic enlightenment of our society. Galbraith earlier claims that he does not wish to attach to the conventional wisdom a "wholly invidious connotation" (15), but in the course of his argument, he does not hesitate to treat the notion of conventional wisdom in a thoroughly demeaning and devaluing manner. For instance, when he states an idea that he believes to be particularly obvious, such as the fact that technological progress is an important means to increase production, he says, "even in the conventional wisdom, no one questions" (103) this obvious conclusion, in a way that implies that the proponents of the conventional wisdom are the lowest common denominator in economic theory and intellectual inquiry in general. Galbraith's merciless treatment of the conventional wisdom is, however, central to the success of The Affluent Society, since it serves as an ideological punching bag that is equally identified with both liberals and conservatives, but the effect of being identified with both sides means that neither side has to actually take responsibility for the erroneous conclusions Galbraith often attributes to the conventional wisdom. Whenever he does refer to "the conventional wisdom of liberals" or "the conventional wisdom of conservatives," he never fails to malign both, so as to avoid any appearance of partisanship.

Galbraith maintains this pretense of neutral, nonpartisan intellectual inquiry throughout the book, but in the closing chapters when he begins to make recommendations as to what course of action the affluent society should pursue, it becomes clear that he is promoting a thoroughly leftist agenda. The rationale for his suggested course of action is not in itself lacking, but it is unarguably strengthened by the fact that Galbraith's earlier conclusions concerning the obsolescence of production as a measure of success have been rationally sound and nonpartisan, and to a degree it is assumed that the rest of his arguments will follow in that manner.

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