John Kenneth Galbraith on the Moral Justifications for Wealth and Inequality

Mark Ames (via Joe Costello) recommended a 1977 documentary series written and hosted by John Kenneth Galbraith. This segment, “The Manners and Morals of High Capitalism,” discusses how the rising bourgeoisie and the new rich justified their lofty status. Kings could rely on God and the Great Chain of Being for their authority, but what about mere capitalists? Galbraith reviews the views of some of the leading defenders of this new order, and shows how their ideas have influenced our views.

Galbraith makes quite a few deadpan observations.

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  1. Bam_Man

    One can only imagine the disgust with which future generations will look back upon today’s “Robber Barons”.

    At least the 19th century predators could claim that their sociopathy was justified by contemporary religious and scientific beliefs. I think there will be some serious head-scratching when the current crop is studied a hundred or so years from now.

    1. Another Gordon

      “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
      – Frederic Bastiat, French writer and economist.

      And that is precisely what the neoliberals have done. They put supposedly infallible markets in place of God, competition in place of the Holy Spirit as the way by which the divine will acts in the world and elevated greed (one of the seven deadly sins) to pre-eminence as the organising principle for society.

      In a secular age this is a non-theocratic religion that justifies and enables looting exactly as Bastiat predicted.

        1. Lance N

          In fact Adam Smith was not a libertarian at all. He talks a lot about free and fair markets, and how they stay fair with non-market supervision.

    2. dan h

      I disagree here, and it is why I’m ultimately pessimistic for our species’ future. I can’t remember my read through, but I’ve seen it attributed to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath more than a few times, something to the effect of “the poor see themselves as temporarily disparaged millionaires”. Capitalism has enabled the worst of us to create massive inequality which has pillaged our planet and in turn has warped many into choosing the same selfish path. Those who would roll the dice, if given the choice at birth, on a big score rather than a fair allotment for all are, as I have slowly come to realize, a very large percentage of our species. Mix in innate intelligence differences and modern communication ability, and you get the present…We are screwed.

    3. MichaelC

      RE: One can only imagine the disgust with which future generations will look back upon today’s “Robber Barons”.

      Alas. But,AYFKM?

      The idea that it will take generations to understand what is in front of our faces today is one of the big lies, IMHO, preventing us from putting a stop to it now.

      Is Rommney’s (or Buffetts’ or Gate’s or Jobs’,or the Walton’s or the Koch’s or Schwartzman’s or Blankfein’s or Dimon’s or..etc) wealth acquisition any different than Vanderbuilt’s or Gould’s or Fisk’s or Rockefeller’s or any of the Robber Barons? Didn’t each man achieve his success by gaming regulatory/gov’t policies? Granted, Bain’s success was much more genteel than Vanderbilt’s or Carnegie’s, but would either of them be a serious contender to head the gov’t in their day? Would citizens’s at the time even consider electing one of the most successful barons to the presidency? We live in an absurd time. I don’t think it should (and I hope it doesn’t) take another generation to recognize that electing a plutocrat is insane, even if you really, really hate Obama.

      This idea that it takes time and some distance from the reality to assess it objectively,sounds superficially reasonable,if it’s limited to a very short time period. This false reasonableness makes it nearly impossible for those, like the Occupiers,(and the Sheila Bair’s and the Bill Black’s and the Liz Warren’s and the Simon Johnson’s and the Adam Levitans and the Merkley and Levins and the Judge Rakoffs..etc) who want folks to wake up today, re-read their history, recognize the similarities with the monochromatic mythology of that distant past and put an end to today’s robber baron dominance of this country’s government.

      We’ve been living in a 20-21st century robber baron culture since the post-oil crisis, post inflationary 70’s days of Gordon Gekko’s naisance. The Hampton’s, since the eighties, make Newport look quaint, to update JKG’s ’77 piece. Since it’s at least a generation since this was aired, the generational timeframe between crisis onset and crisis resolution has already been met. The time for change is now.

      Think what you like about Occupy as a movement, but its hard to deny their disgust is ample evidence of the idea that future generations will indeed be disgusted with this one if it fails to act today to try to put a brake on our financier overlords.

      I think Taibbi puts it best here. Rommney and his mate Ryan do need to be laughed out of town. I’d add the same derision has been earned by O’s pals Geithner and the Clintonista hangers-on.

  2. Iowan 786

    I bougt the book accompanyting this program for my father many years ago, and also read it myself. Among his “deadpan observations” (which I THINK was from this program)is:

    “The [insert generic plan to cut taxes on the wealthy and benefits for the poor or unemployed] proposed by [insert generic Republican or Randian,or just Romney/Ryan] seems to be based on the curious assumption that the rich won’t work because they do not have enough money and the poor won’t work because they have too much.

    1. YouDon'tSay?

      That does indeed seem to be the conundrum we face going forward, doesn’t it? Not that it’s necessarily true, especially on the part of the poor. For the morally impoverished rich, enough can NEVER be enough.

  3. Susan the other

    Thanks for this treat. I can only imagine what JKG would think of all the socialized losses and privatized gains given to us by the latest march of capitalism. This video also goes well with Das today. Cheers.

    1. charles sereno

      A treat indeed! My comments: too bad the beginning is the worst foot forward; audio from Victorian Age is sadly challenging; this is the first time I ever saw/heard the clever connection of “Sacre du Printemps” with locomotives; best of all, JKG offers so much interesting American history without grinding an ax or know-it-all judgment.

  4. The Dork of Cork

    Speaking of rail corruption.

    Spain is a very strange place these days , much like a sunny Ireland with false nationalist economists such as Colm McCarthy speaking from absurd pulpits where we need to cut the commons to assume some sort of crazy independence.

    The debt (a symbolic construct) taken on for highly capital intensive public transport projects is somehow seen as real stuff.
    Because it is seen as real stuff they burn real diesel in buses rather then use the now real capital available.
    This extracts real domestic demand from the Spainish economy.

    This tram ran for 2 weeks in 2011 and then stopped for lack of symbolic tokens because of the debt build up.ía_de_Jaén

    I am afraid Europe is a absurdly corrupt entity.
    It cannot be saved.

  5. John Lenihan

    Professor Galbraith’s comment about Veblen affirming the rich to be really just slightly different in their behavior from a bunch of jumped-up cannibals, was really delightful

    1. Will

      If you like that, you’ll probably enjoy reading Veblen firsthand. He’s got an endless supply of dry witticisms.

  6. The Dork of Cork

    A new existing but short line take out of commission so that the guys up North can have the capital to build more of the same in France !!!

    Its both crazy and wildly corrupt.

    It looked very busy in this video from spring 2011.

    The problem with Europe me thinks is that it ain’t using its existing capital stock too well
    The Euro can only grow outwards through waste production as it is not really a currency , its a yield vehicle.

    The central question of our times is why or to be more precise – who benefits ?

  7. econ

    JKG is pointing out Americans to understand is the lack of class consciousness that afflicts their culture buttressed by media that reinforces this myopia of the 99%. Go back to your channel changer and wake up when the game is over for y’all.

  8. SomethingSomethingComplete

    How can this possibly be taken seriously?

    It’s interesting, entertaining, possibly true in parts, but it’s not serious.

    It’s John’s personal speculations and narratives. He has a bunch of priors in his system and he has put them together in a neat story manifest in a totally ridiculous video that’s backed up by absolutely no solid data or analysis.

    I’m sure John intended this as “food for thought” (if he is a legitimate social scientists he can’t possibly consider something like this as anything other than that).

    Yet I bet that many of the people who chose to watch it will take it as Gospel and Holy Truth, impenetrable and certain.

    1. DSP

      Yeah,thanks for coming.No,really,it’s been interesting.
      Call in again if you’re in the neighbourhood.

    2. Fiver

      Now who shall I listen to, one of the great minds (and wits) of the 20th century, or an empty vessel like you, who by your own words reveals you have no idea why the man is among the greats. How pathetic.

    3. YouDon'tSay?

      Although, you have to wonder about someone who came up with such a long and meaningless moniker to post such meaningless online drivel as well. Just sayin’.

    4. charles leseau

      Here’s what’s wrong with it:

      1. ?
      2. ?
      3. ?

      Fill in the blanks please.

      Saying it’s false (or is it “possibly true at parts”?) and then not pointing out a single falsehood while slamming people who watch it for their sin of maybe probably possibly believing it is weaker than the softest of toilet paper.

      By the way, the conclusion I got from it isn’t one that he mentioned as any “gospel truth” for me to accept. It is merely a reinforcement of something I have for years believed: i.e. it is time for the world to start thinking about limiting what any one person can be allowed to own – particularly with respect to land and access to political power. All the boogeyman systems in past practice, whether they be feudalism, Soviet communism, Euro socialism, American capitalism, fungoism or what have you – they ALL have had the failing of giving certain very tiny groups of people far too much power in exchange for the very questionable benefits they bestow on societies.


      Oh, as an aside: The thing I found most delightful about this video is the stuff at the end – nouveau riche trying to buy themselves old money status as if it can be put on and worn like a tailored suit (i.e. trash trying to purchase the sense of class, title, and respectabilty they don’t feel they have). That affectation is hilarious every time I hear something about it. It’s a little pet interest of mine, actually. It reveals just how insecure the big swindler class is in wearing their riches, especially considering today’s ultratrashy billionaires. This video contained a few instances I didn’t know about. Kubrick’s version of ‘Barry Lyndon’ comes to mind, only these people are worse – they have none of the legitimate courage of that titular character while possessing all of his foibles.

  9. Goat_farmers_of_the_CIA

    “…backed up by absolutely no solid data or analysis.”

    I suppose you are referring to those used to justify the policies leading to the speculative boom that came crashing down in 2008 and left us with a global crisis from which we have yet to recover? Colombian writer and polymath Fernando Vallejo is fond of saying that words and numbers are humanity’s favorite ways of lying.

    “It’s interesting, entertaining, possibly true in parts, but it’s not serious.”

    And you’re ridiculous and disingenious.

  10. tiebie66

    I found this very difficult to understand – nearly vacuous. Criticism of the wealthy was apparent as well as the attribution of, at least some of, this wealth to ill-gotten gains. But no explanation of why some prefer to exploit others rather than work, why these tendencies are being transmitted genetically, why the environment has not eliminated these tendencies if they are on the whole maladaptive, and if we have to live with such characters, like we have to live with parasites and viruses, how we are supposed to do that. Does he mean that, in general, one gets rich by chance or that poverty is likely to produce wealth or that ignorance will bring about breakthroughs? Or that an even distribution of income will prevent some from acting foolishly and others wisely and thus prevent the formation of a divide to reoccur? I’m not trying to set up a straw man here, I’m trying to understand what he had to contribute in terms of insights and solutions.

    What I saw was simply finger-pointing at the rich and ridicule of the explanations offered by scientists that masked a complete lack of any contribution of substance. And all of that 20/20 …! But maybe I was expecting something beyond the scope of this particular segment.

    1. joecostello

      “why the environment has not eliminated these tendencies if they are on the whole maladaptive’

      are you trying to be funny or inane?

      “of the explanations offered by scientists”

      again are you trying to be funny or inane?

  11. dannyc

    Sheldon Adelson, Peter Peterson, David H. Koch, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg et al to consume while they display.

  12. cfaman

    Notice the amount of acting and stage prop labor that went into this show. It would be prohibitively expensive to produce today. What does this mean? Not that the laborers earn so much more, no! That the budgets available for production are so much less. And for why? Because we no longer tax the people who have the money.

    1. Nathanael

      “Greatest good for the greatest number” will do. There is ample evidence for the “declining marginal utility of money” — therefore happiness is greatest when money is spread almost equally.

      If you don’t like that (perhaps you’re a very selfish rich person), there’s empirical evidence that equality of wealth makes everyone richer.

  13. WorldisMorphing

    This was enough of a gem so as to be added to my YouTube’s ‘Favorites’…

    I understand the man’s renown now. Very few get to pass such kinds of knowledge with this kind of tone. He pulls it off remarkably well.

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