Half a century ago J.K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society changed the political consciousness of a generation in the English- speaking world and beyond. It vividly re-established in the minds of civilised men and women the paradox of private affluence in a sea of public neediness — for which, as Matthew Arnold reminds us, Cato reported by Sallust had a name in his description of ancient Rome: ‘publice egestas, privatim opulentia’ (public poverty, private opulence).
From this premise he made the case for the mixed economy, one in which the genius and power of market forces is balanced and harnessed by effective government in promoting public goods and correcting market failures — including gross inequality — that mar unconstrained laissez-faire. This was the consensus that held sway — until, from about 1980, the Reaganite notion that ‘government is the problem’ began to displace it, at least in the US.
Jeffrey Sachs’s new book is a landmark in this great and essentially American tradition, setting out with luminous clarity the narrative and the analysis of how the US and the wider world has been traduced and seduced by debased ideology, racist reflexes and huge vested interests from its liberal and enlightened roots. Indeed, Sachs by his life and his writing goes far to restore one’s wavering faith in the informing inspiration of the post-1945 new dawn, faith in economics, faith in America and faith in humanity.
In plain and accessible English this scion of all that is best about New England’s academia — scholarly, original, independent, rigorous, enlightened and enlightening — starts from the belief that economics is a moral enquiry with the task of helping most people to lead happier lives by reducing poverty. That, as the great Alfred Marshall observed, makes economics ‘the study of the causes of the degradation of a large part of mankind’. It is this, not Marx’s red herrings about property and its ownership, which is the true starting point for any ‘left’ political philosophy.
In developing his argument, like Galbraith’s, that economic success for whole societies — and for the globe — requires good government, government that concerns itself with efficiency and fairness at home, with competitiveness and co-operation abroad, with infrastructure and education, with incentives and income distribution, with sustainability and much else, Sachs excoriates the myths and sophistries which have been deployed to prevent government from doing its job, especially if that meant imposing burdens on the rich — what Galbraith earlier identified as ‘the formulation that the rich have not been working because of too little income and the poor have been idling because of too much’ .
Not only does he restore dignity and ethical purpose to economics. He reminds us of the fundamental decencies and democratic focus of the great American liberal tradition, the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the energy, the optimism, the altruism and the humanity that won the admiration and devotion of so many of my generation who found in America in the postwar decades the idealism and excitement of a society that looked to the future with high hopes and moral purpose. This perspective has alas threatened to turn sour over the last 30 years as cynicism, greed and fundamentalist clap-trap have been mobilised to occupy the temple of enlightenment.
Sachs goes further still. He restores our faith in mankind, particularly American mankind, when he demonstrates that the political pathology of American conservatism, however much engineered and lubricated by the vested interests of what he calls the ‘corporatocracy’ and ‘hyper-commercialism’, does not at all reflect any genuine expression of democratic choice. On the contrary American opinion, as recorded in duly methodical surveys, is miles away from the narrow selfishness and irresponsibility that are reflected in so much of the press, radio and television and seem to animate the behaviour in government of those elected to steer American democracy.
Some of the things that Americans agreed by overwhelming majorities (of between 68 and 87 per cent) were: ‘Differences in incomes are too large and … not fair’; ‘government must see that no one is without food, clothing or shelter’; ‘government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can get to’; tax dollars should be used ‘to pay for … early childhood education in kindergarten and nursery school … and for retraining programmes for people whose jobs have been eliminated’; and ‘it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure that all Americans have health care coverage’. Support for the proposition that the government ‘should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich’ has risen from 36 per cent in 1939 to 45 per cent in 1998 and to 56 per cent in 2007.
To remove the power of money, which according to Sachs prevents these values being expressed in American legislatures, he suggests public financing of election campaigns, free media time, a ban on campaign financing from lobbyists, stopping the revolving door between government jobs and working for lobbying firms and stopping corporations from using campaign donations to get tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, tender-free government contracts, ‘earmarks’ and other special deals.
He is right. Indeed, I have long believed that a simple change to ban the buying of TV time for political purposes (though clearly unconstitutional given the bizarre interpretation put by the courts on ‘freedom of speech’) would at a stroke remove the need for multi-million dollar campaign funds and so liberate American democracy permanently from the corrupting thrall of big money. It will not happen; but it should.