Wealthy Society out of Balance?

I thought I ought to follow the example of my fellow original positioners and post from my summer reading list. Today’s reading was John K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958). Galbraith begins his famous chapter on the “Theory of Social Balance” with the following claim:

“The final problem of the productive society is what it produces.  This manifests itself in an implacable tendency to provide an opulent supply of some things and a niggardly yield of others.  This disparity carries to the point where it is a cause of social discomfort and social unhealth.  The line which divides our area of wealth from our area of poverty is roughly that which divides privately produced and marketed goods and services from publicly rendered services.  Our wealth in the first is not only in startling contrast with the meagerness of the latter, but our wealth in privately produced goods is, to a marked degree, the cause of crisis in supply of public services.  For we have failed to see the importance, indeed the urgent need, of maintaining a balance between the two” (p. 187).

Greater private production, Galbraith notes, requires greater public provision. For example, the production of automobiles requires the building and maintenance of roads, street signs, employment of traffic cops, regulation of parking, provisions for dealing with ecological consequences of cars, etc.  American society, he argued 52 years ago, was remarkably out of balance. Has his work stood the test of time?

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2 Responses to Wealthy Society out of Balance?

  1. Lime says:

    Galbraith provides several explanations as to why American society is out of balance. Advertising and marketing, for example, are almost exclusively devoted to private goods. People think of spending on private goods as “free” and spending on public goods as “coerced.” Perhaps most interestingly, Galbraith thinks that the American tradition of favoring income tax over a value added tax (VAT) makes it particularly susceptible to social imbalance. Progressives, by implication, should focus less on tax equity and more on making clear the value of public goods and services.

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