A Reviewer's Notebook
AUGUST 01, 1958 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
To clear the ground, let us say at once that Professor John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (Houghton Muffin, 368 pp.) is the most readable book on economics that has appeared in years. It is also the most quotable. The author has a genius for paradox and for aphorism. His mordant and ironic phrases are as telling as those of Thorstein Veblen, and he has what Veblen never did have, the ability to write a shapely sentence and a winged paragraph.
As a technical economist, Galbraith is also quite capable. With all his gifts he should be able to do something supremely worth-while. The curious thing, however, is that he lets his skills spin off into social essays that betray an essential disrespect for individual human beings as such. Professing to care for humane goals, he sees people only in the mass. To Galbraith, it is the "countervailing power" of such large and amorphous entities as the "farm bloc" or the big industrial union or the National As-sociation of Manufacturers or the ADA or the "consumers," which counts. It is never Joe or Jim, and it is never you and me.
The Affluent Society begins with some sharp analysis of the world of yesterday when economics was truly a study of the utilization of scarce means. With one eye on the agricultural surplus, and the other eye on the wonders that can be done with distribution once mass production rips merrily on past the "break-even point" on the forecaster’s graph, Professor Galbraith rightly argues that our "private economy" has killed the poverty-ridden world of Ricardo and Malthus. (Galbraith is, of course, speaking of the United States, not the immense poorhouse of a totalitarian China or of an India in which cows are more sacred than human beings.) The poor we still have with us, but they exist in pockets (as in the uplands of the Ozarks) or in big cities on a "case" basis. Instead of praising what the private economy has done to raise living standards, however, Professor Galbraith proceeds to spray it with a withering irony.
Arousing Our Wants
Galbraith begins by turning the concept of marginal utility against itself. The truth is, he says, that people have been so gorged with the cream of affluence that they have ceased to have any truly spontaneous marginal desires. Not only must our manufacturers produce the goods, they must also whip up the desire for the goods. As Galbraith puts it, consumer demand must be synthesized by Madison Avenue. And a huge debt-creating machine must stand ready to prod, poke, and cajole people into buying the cars, the deepfreezes, the sports jackets, and the hamburger meat which they do not really want.
Since, in Galbraith’s opinion, people are so satiated with the goods which they don’t really desire, the prime need of our society must lie elsewhere. What we should have, says Galbraith, is better "social balance." To Galbraith’s way of thinking, social balance would consist of taking money away from Detroit and Madison Avenue and plowing it into new schools, new roads, better medicine, more efficient police protection, more public parks and bathing beaches, and a far more generous system of unemployment insurance and old age pensions.
There is just enough truth in Galbraith’s picture of what American people have chosen to do with their riches to make his quest of "social balance" seem plausible. But Galbraith is not willing to limit himself to the role of being a critic of taste. Instead of pointing out to people that they might better put their money into education on a private basis that would permit free choice of teachers or into utility cars with a low gas consumption rate and a short wheel base or into voluntary medical cooperatives, all of which would permit an individual the mature exercise of his own will, Galbraith falls back into a Papa Knows Best attitude. To protect people against Madison Avenue, he would send the tax collector around to relieve them of a good part of their income.
Caring for the Inmates
Personally, I find this superior, top-down attitude offensive. It is an echo of Thurman Arnold’s old theory that the government should treat people as the superintendent of an insane asylum treats his charges, as wards to be watched over and provided for. The aim of an insane asylum, so Thurman Arnold used to say, is to make its inmates as safe and as comfortable as possible. To government officials, Arnold said: "Go thou and do likewise." Even granting for the sake of the argument that a lot of people do have defective tastes, I would still take violent issue with the Arnold-Galbraith theory that men in political office have a sounder appreciation of values than the rest of us. Indeed, since men in public office make a profession of living on other people’s money, they are apt to include a higher percentage of irresponsibles than is to be found in most other professional groups. Moreover, they bend to mass pressure — and on Galbraith’s own theory, this means that their stock in trade is catering to the more vociferous inmates of the universal insane asylum.
I vividly recall a conversation with Ken Galbraith when we were fellow editors of Fortune Magazine. "You and John Davenport," said Galbraith, "are Puritans in your attitude toward economics. As for me, I am a Rumanian." By this he meant that he didn’t care a fig for neatness and consistency in drawing a sharp line between public and private sectors of the economy.
The truth is, however, that Galbraith is far more Puritanical in his attitude than are any of the partisans of voluntarism in economics. He believes in an economic theocracy, with the God-elected "planner" telling the rest of us what values we should honor. Instead of letting each and every individual human soul do battle as a free agent with the hosts of Lucifer (conveniently symbolized in The Affluent Society by Madison Avenue), Galbraith would coerce us all to Goodness. And it would be a Goodness in his own image. Not even John Calvin could have held to a doctrine of the Elect that is any more strict than this.
An Ingenious Sales Tax
To pay for social balance, as interpreted by a "planning" state hierarchy in the name of 51 per cent of the population, Galbraith would levy sales taxes on an ingenious basis. He would tax soap and detergents, for example, to pay the bills incurred by the Department of Sanitation. He would tax television sets and cigarettes to pay for schools. Thus our indulgences and our vices, as defined by Galbraith, would finance our virtues.
Professor Galbraith’s tax scheme is a clever adaptation of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, that early satire which drew attention to the fact that the manufacture of luxuries provided an income — and many necessities — for the workers who catered to the vices of the rich. Well, if we must be taxed, Galbraith’s scheme is as good as any other. Since all taxes come out of production, however, it is the general level of taxation, not its method of collection, that is the more important problem. Galbraith may differ with most of his so-called "liberal" friends on the merits of the sales tax. But he is at one with his statist colleagues in his insistence that the tax-take remain at an extremely high level.
Victims of Overproduction
As for Galbraith’s basic theory that we are the victims of too much production, it is, again, a Papa Knows Best theory. To anyone who does a little Soul-searching, the theory must seem glitteringly superficial. For myself, I would reject it utterly. With 95,000 miles on a 1954 Chevrolet and 32,000 miles on a Volkswagen, I do not need Madison Avenue to inform me that I could use a new car. (Incidentally, with three girls of driving age and a home that is two miles from the nearest bus line, I could use two new cars). But with my own "social balance" to pay for (two daughters in college, and two boys at the summer camp age) , not all the blandishments of Madison Avenue can sell me anything that is superfluous. When Uncle Sam puts in for his share of my income, I resent every penny that he takes for such items of questionable "social balance" as sending money to Santo Domingo or financing Nehru’s experiments in Indian socialism. Far from swimming in plenty and having no "marginal utility" problems, I know what I need without ever reading an advertisement.
Nor is this personal with me. As I look about, I see practically everybody else in the same predicament.
Galbraith’s book, then, is built on an entirely defective foundation. It is clever, brilliant in its phrasing, an object lesson to all economists who try to write for
the general public. But it contains the subtle poison that will someday drug us into reconstituting society in the image of a public institution, with only the "planning" officials exercising the power of choice. If enough people listen to Galbraith, the "underlying population," to use Veblen’s old phrase, will simply be on the receiving end of whatever the government wants to dispense in the name of "social balance." And the "social balance" will be maladministered, at that.
A Ride to Panmunjom by Duane Thorin (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co, 1956. 303 pp.)
Reviewed By Bettina Bien
As this novel opens, twelve American prisoners of war are jogging along in a Chinese truck over the roads of North Korea on their way to Panmunjom — and to release. One of them had willingly collaborated with the communists. Another had capitulated when it seemed to his personal advantage. Another, a high ranking officer, after some pressure, had confessed to "germ warfare." Several had resisted considerable mental and even physical torture; and these are the author’s heroes.
All twelve men stand out as individuals, some weak, some strong, some peculiar, some almost untouched by their experience as prisoners. The novel’s author, Duane Thorin, a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, knows personally from experience as a war prisoner in Korea, what these men went through. He describes clearly the mental and emotional attitude of each, the moments when their fates hung in the balance, the reasons why some gave in, why others withstood the test and resisted pressure to the end. Detailed descriptions of the tactics used by the communists and of the ways in which these twelve reacted, disclose the source of each man’s strength or weakness. Those who were strong, even under most adverse conditions, had somehow acquired a sound moral and religious philosophy. Those who failed to stand up to the communists lacked faith, convictions, or beliefs to live by.
It is this novel’s thesis that the inner strength men need develops over years of living. It cannot merely be applied from outside like veneer. Proper training and indoctrination help, so that young men who have not previously had guidance, experience, and education may learn a great deal after induction in the services. To aid in this task Duane Thorin is now in Washington with the armed services. Let us hope he does not become so engrossed in this job, working through and with the force of government, that he forgets the true source of real strength and courage — freedom. When individuals seek to reach their goals and must constantly adjust to unexpected changes, when they suffer from their own mistakes and strive to make their own solutions, when their success or failure is their own responsibility and reward, the inner spark, the faith, the strength which Thorin prizes, are encouraged. For these incentives and for the need to struggle and to solve one’s problems, there is no substitute.