RetroBlogging – John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The New Industrial State” QOTD

Following up on yesterday’s quote from Burnham (1941), we have an amazing quote from Galbraith (1978) on the primacy of economic goals in public policy, and the problems with focusing solely on what is measurable:

[T]extbooks, teachers and economists in high office regularly warn that economic judgments are not the total judgment on life. This warning having been given, economics is then, routinely, made the final test of public policy. The rate of increase in income and output in National Income and Gross National Product, together with the level of employment, remain the all but exclusive measure of social achievement. This is the modern morality. Saint Peter is assumed to ask applicants only what they have done to increase the GNP.

Skipping one paragraph, and with not as punchy a last line, JKG continues:

There is a further advantage in economic goals. The quality of life is subjective and disputable. Cultural and aesthetic progress cannot easily be measured. Who can say for sure what arrangements best allow for the development of individual personality? Who can be certain what advances the total of human happiness? Who can guess how much clean air or uncluttered highways are enjoyed? Gross National Product and the level of unemployment, on the other hand, are objective and measurable. To many it will always seem better to have measurable progress toward the wrong goals than unmeasurable and hence uncertain progress toward the right ones.

I think I could frame my current research project by asking of this quote, “How did this come to be?”

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2 Comments

  1. Dan, these are amazing quotes! I’m going to tuck away that last one about “measurable progress.” I feel that’s going to come in handy many times in the future.

    Also, for your project, these are gems. I’ve always noticed that its at the introduction of some kind of rotten social situation that people complain the most, before they seem to take these conditions for granted. This often leads me to be surprised when I find people in past acting downright radical (I always erroneously assume that people in the past are more conservative than I am in the present). This is a perfect example of how you find the some of the most radical attacks on a bad social phenomenon from those who were the first to notice its ill effects.

  1. Mperience!