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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Galbraith's Oversight




A month ago, the economist and social critic John Kenneth Galbraith marked his 90th birthday, an occasion unnoticed in most corners until the arrival last week of the current New Yorker, with an article about it by John Cassidy. In the course of paying his respects, Cassidy made particular mention of "The Affluent Society," Galbraith's most important and enduring book, bringing to mind both its formidable strengths and its occasional shortcomings.


"The Affluent Society" was published in 1958. I vividly recall reading it for the first time when I was 19 years old and ill-equipped by either experience or education to grasp all its arguments, but its basic critique of capitalism got through and has remained part of me ever since, a counterpoint and (to some extent) corrective to the conservatism to which, with increased age, I have predictably succumbed.


The most powerful of Galbraith's arguments, in Cassidy's words, is "that capitalism, left to its own devices, doesn't work properly; it excludes the poor, ruins the environment and fails to deliver enough collectively produced goods, such as roads, reservoirs, schools and hospitals." Cassidy points out that Galbraith was, however unwittingly, godfather to Charles A. Reich and E.F. Schumacher and other gurus of the 1960s, though it is hard to believe that Galbraith himself can have much patience with the Flower Powerites whose anti-capitalism, as it turned out, did not extend to denying themselves or their children the fruits of capitalist excess.


Galbraith wrote, memorably, about the immense value we place on "privately produced production" as against our contempt for public services, which leads to "private opulence and public squalor." At best, he said, "public services are a necessary evil; at worst, they are a malign tendency against which an alert community must exercise eternal vigilance." He went on: "Such attitudes lead to some interesting contradictions. We welcome expansion of telephone services as improving the general well-being but accept curtailment of postal services as signifying necessary economy. We set great store by the increase in private wealth but regret the added outlays for the police force by which it is protected. Vacuum cleaners to ensure clean houses are praiseworthy and essential in our standard of living. Street cleaners to ensure clean streets are an unfortunate expense. Partly as a result, our houses are generally clean and our streets generally filthy."


All of which is true, yet it falls short of the truth. Cassidy says, accurately, that one great error of Galbraith's is his conviction, as expressed in "The New Industrial State," that economic competition is disappearing and that "an all-powerful corporate bureaucracy" will rule the world. But the error that runs deepest is Galbraith's ardent belief in the beneficent and curative effects of government. As recently as "The Good Society," published two years ago, Galbraith contended that the solution to our social problems - he identified them with hiscustomary wit, acuity and style - lies in an activist, all-encompassing government that regards no aspect of human existence as too trivial for its attentions.


Yet if we have learned in recent years that the rise of the multinational corporations does not doom us to the decline of competition, so too have we learned that there are real limits on what government can do. Doubtless we have overreacted to the excesses of big and intrusive government, especially under the stimulus of the sentimental rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, but the suspicion with which the public sector is now viewed is not wholly a blind reaction. There are reasons for it.


One of these came to mind while rereading, for the first time in many years, the passage quoted above. The image of immaculate houses serviced by privately owned vacuum cleaners and filthy streets unattended by public cleaners is graphic but incomplete. It assumes an either/or: Either we have private self-indulgence or we have public neglect. It does not consider the possibility that there are limits to what public service can provide and that the only way to go beyond those limits entails private, not public, action.


The streets upon which I look as these words are written - the intersection of Fifth and A streets NE in Washington - come close to fitting Galbraith's notion of dirt, if not outright squalor. There are bits of paper lying in the curbs, recycling bins strewn on the sidewalks, glass and plastic bottles in the gutters; in the middle of one block is a huge pile of trash - newspapers, plastic bags, bottles and other detritus - half on the sidewalk, half on the street.


Yet only 48 hours ago the garbage trucks made their way through the neighborhood, and as these words are written the recycling contractor is picking up the loads left for it. Whatever the failures of the government of the District of Columbia, anecdotal evidence suggests that it does a pretty good job of picking up the trash, in my neighborhood at least. But private citizens - some who live here, others who pass through - treat the streets and sidewalks with indifference, if not contempt; government is doing its job, but they aren't doing theirs.


The point should be obvious: Government can't do everything. There is far more that it can do effectively and efficiently than the far right would have us believe, but there is far less that it can do than "an abiding liberal" (his own words) such as Galbraith insists. Yet if this is obvious, the human capacity to ignore or deny the obvious is bottomless, now as always. Even Galbraith, who wrote so brilliantly in "The Great Crash" about self-delusion, can fall victim to it.


Jonathan Yardley contributed this comment to the Washington Post.