Our Boondoggling Democracy

"Our Boondoggling Democracy," Commentary, August 1958.  (A review of The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith.)


The Affluent Society is by far the most serious critique of “welfare capitalism” that has been written in the post-Marxian era. (It is perhaps worth remarking that, though Mr. Galbraith will be denounced in some quarters as a “socialist,” he clearly hasn’t the faintest interest in that doctrine.) Its implications are at least as much in the realm of moral philosophy as political economy; and they are so numerous and extensive as to be almost frightening to contemplate. Mr. Galbraith himself does not pursue them very far. He does suggest, as immediate measures, a self-adjusting unemployment insurance program which will pay nearly full wages in times of crisis and more modest sums in times of high prosperity. He also urges a more common reliance on the sales tax as a fund-raising measure for public services. The first recommendation will alarm business executives who still hold the venerable opinion (never applied to themselves) that men won’t work unless the “iron laws” of economics constrain them to. The second will outrage merchants and those liberals who are so hypnotized by egalitarianism (and its political possibilities) that they are willing to neglect large problems in order to make “fighting issues” out of smaller ones. Another of his recommendations, for a national prices and wage policy (i.e., controls) in specific industries, will displease just about everyone. That is as it should be, Mr. Galbraith has moved intellectually into the second half of the 20th century, whereas the “conventional wisdom” lags behind, mouthing its outworn slogans, fighting its outworn battles, haunted by outworn anxieties, while it moves frantically around the vicious circle we are fixed in.

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