Sunday, May 19, 2013

John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Age of Uncertainty: The Manners and Morals of High Capitalism"

Continuing with the post featuring John Kenneth Galbraith's 1977 documentary and book, The Age of Uncertainty, Episode 2, The Manners and Morals of High Capitalism:

In this episode, Galbraith brings his not inconsiderable wit and critical capacity to the Gilded Age and the robber barons who ruled it. He also deals with the closely related doctrine of Social Darwinism.

In the book, Galbraith says this about the Social Darwinist doctrine:

No one at this happy gathering seems to have worried about a small but obvious point, which is how the Social Darwinists would bridge the generation gap. In those years John D. Rockefeller had himself formulated the doctrine for a Sunday school class in an exceptionally engaging way: "The American Beauty rose," he had explained to the young,"can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it." The same sacrifices occurred in business and accounted, pro tanto, for the splendor of a Rockefeller. "This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God." The question, of course, was whether this same law of nature and of God would also explain the purely inherited splendor of John D., Jr. , or yet later of John D. III, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop and David. Surely, on the contrary, a Rockefeller inheritance, even more than a handout to the poor, would cool the struggle to survive, devastate the moral and physical tone of the legatees and justify a confiscatory inheritance tax that would save their efforts for society. A nasty problem.

No one should imagine that Spencer and Sumner are relics purely of the past. They still restrain the hand of the well-to-do individual when he is approached by a beggar. Perhaps it will damage the man's morale. Their doctrines still lurk in the inner cells of the Rockefeller consciousness. Or maybe only in those of their speech writers. Speaking in Dallas on September 12, 1975, to a convocation of committed conservatives, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller warned against the continuing dangers of compassion:

One of the problems in this country is that we have this Judeo-Christian heritage of wanting to help those in need. And this, when added to some political instincts, sometimes causes people to promise more than they can deliver. [my emphasis]
Notice that the latter quote is from Nelson Rockefeller in 1975; and Rockefeller was the archetypal liberal Republican.

Galbraith sardonic description of the minister Henry Ward Beecher is priceless:

His reconciliation involved a distinction between theology and religion. Theology, like the animal kingdom, was evolutionary. Such change did not contradict the Holy Writ. Religion was enduring. Its truths did not change. Darwin and Spencer belonged to theology; the Bible was religion. So there was no conflict between natural selection and the Holy Scripture. I do not understand this distinction, and it is fairly certain that neither Beecher nor his congregation did either. But it sounded exceptionally good.

Beecher had other good news for his affluent flock. God particularly loved sinners, for He greatly enjoyed redeeming them. So, by implication, one could go out of an occasional evening and sin. The ensuing repentance and redemption would then do wonders for God's morale. Beecher thereupon proceeded to follow his own advice. Robert Shaplen, the author of the definitive study of Beecher's private and litigious life and later one of the most authoritative reporters on Vietnam and the Vietnam war, has shown how faithful he was in this regard . Besides comforting his rich parishioners on the legitimacy of their wealth, Beecher comforted their wives - some of them at least - by taking them to bed. Eventually one, Elizabeth Tilton , was assailed by the thought that even though Beecher was being redeemed, her case was not so clear. So she confessed not to God as intended but to her husband, and he sued Beecher. The jury disagreed on Beecher's guilt. No one who has since looked at the evidence has had any similar doubt.

Speaking of Herbert Spencer, the British scientist and author of the Social Darwinist classic Social Statics, Galbraith writes, "Earlier on, I mentioned that Beecher had told Spencer of his hope that they would meet again in heaven. There must be many, and I am one, who would prefer not to meet either."

But the best part of this segment is his description of the economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen, which begins in the documentary around 30:00, in which he calls Veblen "the preeminent critic of the manners and morals of the great American capitalists." Galbraith is conventionally considered to have been working in the "structuralist" economics tradition of Veblen. Why it's called "structuralist," I've yet to discern.

In the book, Galbraith writes:

The rich have regularly invited the resentment of the less rich or the poor. Why should they have so much? What virtue justifies their higher income and station? This attack the rich can always stand. It proceeds from envy, and this affirms their superiority.

The Veblen weapon was far more refined; it was ridicule presented as the most somber and careful science. All primitive tribes had their festivals, rituals and orgies, some of them exceptionally depraved. Likewise the rich. Their social observances and rituals might be different in form and detail but their purpose was the same - self-advertisement, exhibitionism. And for every exhibitionist mannerism or enjoyment of the rich, Veblen came up with some deplorable barbarian counterpart. The Vanderbilts bound up their women in corsets, thus proving they were purely objects of enjoyment and display. The Papuan chief carved up the faces or breasts of his wives to the same end. The rich gathered for elegant dinners and entertainments. The counterpart ritual of the aboriginal community was the potlatch or orgy. Veblen could do wonders even with a walking stick:

The walking-stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer's hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utili ty as an evidence of leisure. But it is also a weapon and it meets a felt need of barba rian man on that ground. The handling of so tangible and primitive a means of offense is very comforting to anyone who is gifted with even a moderate share of ferocity.
Galbraith concludes that chapter of the book with this memorable observation:

My own thought is that if men are sufficiently concerned to acquire money, their behavior will reflect that preoccupation and be much the same, whatever the time or place. Out of moral sense, caution or conscience- conscience being, as Mencken once said, "the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking" - most, it may be expected, will remain within the law. But a largely stable minority will be impelled to step over the line into forthright rascality.

The rascality will not vary much as to form from one period to the next. Popular opinion and popular fiction to the contrary, this is not a line of work that attracts the highly innovative mind. The man who is admired for the ingenuity of his larceny is almost always rediscovering some earlier form of fraud. The basic forms are all known, have all been practiced.

The manners of capitalism improve. The morals may not. But, equally, they do not get worse.
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