The Affluent Society

Harvard University
19 August 1999

The Continuing Influence of Affluence – J.K.Galbraith

It is now forty years and something more since I surveyed the scene in the economically advanced countries, especially the United States, and wrote “The Affluent Society.” The book had a satisfying reception, and I’m here asked as to its latter-day relevance. That should not be asked of any author, but the mistake having been made, I happily respond. The central argument in the book was that in the economically advanced countries, and especially in the United States, there has been a highly uneven rate of social development. Privately produced goods and services for use and consumption are abundantly available. So available are they, indeed, that a large and talented expenditure on advertising and salesmanship is needed to persuade people to want what is produced. Consumer sovereignty, once governed by the need for food and shelter, is now the highly contrived consumption of an infinite variety of goods and services. 

That, however, is in what has come to be called the private sector. There is no such abundance in the services available from the state. Social services, health care, education –especially education –public housing for the needful, even food, along with action to protect life and the environment, are all in short supply. Damage to the environment is the most visible result of this abundant production of goods and services. In a passage that was much quoted, and which I thought myself at the time was perhaps too extravagant, I told of the family that took its modern, highly styled, tail-finned automobile out for a holiday. They went through streets and countryside made hideous by commercial activity and commercial art. They spent their night in a public park replete with refuse and disorder and dined on delicately packaged food from an expensive portable refrigerator.

So it seemed forty years ago; in the time that has since elapsed the contrast between needed public services and affluent public consumption has become much greater. Every day the press, radio and television proclaim the abundant production of goods and the need for more money for education, public works and the desolate condition of the poor in the great cities. Clearly affluence in the advanced countries is still a highly unequal thing. 

All this, were I writing now, I would still emphasize. I would especially stress the continuing unhappy position of the poor. This, if anything, is more evident than it was forty years ago. Then in the United States it was the problem of southern plantation agriculture and the hills and hollows of the rural Appalachian Plateau. Now it is the highly visible problem of the great metropolis. 

There is another contrast. Were I writing now, I would give emphasis to the depressing difference in well-being as between the affluent world and the less fortunate countries –mainly the post-colonial world. The rich countries have their rich and poor. The world has its rich and poor nations. When I wrote “The Affluent Society,” I was becoming more strongly aware of this difference on the world scene and had started at Harvard one of the first courses on the problems in the poor countries. I went on to spend a part of my life in India, one of the most diversely interesting of the post-colonial lands. There has been a developing concern with these problems; alas, the progress has not kept pace with the rhetoric. 

The problem is not economics; it goes back to a far deeper part of human nature. As people become fortunate in their personal well-being, and as countries become similarly fortunate, there is a common tendency to ignore the poor. Or to develop some rationalization for the good fortune of the fortunate. Responsibility is assigned to the poor themselves. Given their personal disposition and moral tone, they are meant to be poor. Poverty is both inevitable and in some measure deserved. The fortunate individuals and fortunate countries enjoy their well-being without the burden of conscience, without a troublesome sense of responsibility. This is something I did not recognize writing forty years ago; it is a habit of mind to which I would now attribute major responsibility. 

This is not, of course, the full story. After World War II decolonization, a greatly civilized and admirable step, nonetheless left a number of countries without effective self-government. Nothing is so important for economic development and the human condition as stable, reliable, competent and honest government. This in important parts of the world is still lacking. Nothing is so accepted in our times as respect for sovereignty; nothing, on occasion, so protects disorder, poverty and hardship. Here I’m not suggesting an independent role for any one country and certainly not for the United States. I do believe we need a much stronger role for international action, including, needless to say, the United Nations. We need to have a much larger sense of common responsibility for those suffering from the weakness, corruption, disorder and the cruelty of bad government or none at all. Sovereignty, though it has something close to religious status in modern political thought, must not protect human despair. This may not be a popular point; popularity is not always a test of needed intelligence. So I take leave of my work of forty years ago. I am not entirely dissatisfied with it but I do not exaggerate its role. Books may be of some service to human understanding and action in their time. There remains always the possibility, even the probability, that they do more for the self-esteem of the author than for the fate of the world. 

- J.K.Galbraith