available are they, indeed, that a large and talented expenditure on
advertising and salesmanship is needed to persuade people to want
what is produced. Consumer sovereignty, once governed by the need
for food and shelter, is now the highly contrived consumption of an
infinite variety of goods and services.
That, however, is in what has come to be called the private sector.
There is no such abundance in the services available from the state.
Social services, health care, education --especially education
--public housing for the needful, even food, along with action to
protect life and the environment, are all in short supply. Damage to
the environment is the most visible result of this abundant
production of goods and services. In a passage that was much quoted,
and which I thought myself at the time was perhaps too extravagant,
I told of the family that took its modern, highly styled,
tail-finned automobile out for a holiday. They went through streets
and countryside made hideous by commercial activity and commercial
art. They spent their night in a public park replete with refuse and
disorder and dined on delicately packaged food from an expensive
So it seemed forty years ago; in the time that has since elapsed the
contrast between needed public services and affluent public
consumption has become much greater. Every day the press, radio and
television proclaim the abundant production of goods and the need
for more money for education, public works and the desolate
condition of the poor in the great cities. Clearly affluence in the
advanced countries is still a highly unequal thing.
All this, were I writing now, I would still emphasize. I would
especially stress the continuing unhappy position of the poor. This,
if anything, is more evident than it was forty years ago. Then in
the United States it was the problem of southern plantation
agriculture and the hills and hollows of the rural Appalachian
Plateau. Now it is the highly visible problem of the great
There is another contrast. Were I writing now, I would give emphasis
to the depressing difference in well-being as between the affluent
world and the less fortunate countries --mainly the post-colonial
world. The rich countries have their rich and poor. The world has
its rich and poor nations. When I wrote "The Affluent Society," I
was becoming more strongly aware of this difference on the world
scene and had started at Harvard one of the first courses on the
problems in the poor countries. I went on to spend a part of my life
in India, one of the most diversely interesting of the post-colonial
lands. There has been a developing concern with these problems;
alas, the progress has not kept pace with the rhetoric.
The problem is not economics; it goes back to a far deeper part of
human nature. As people become fortunate in their personal
well-being, and as countries become similarly fortunate, there is a
common tendency to ignore the poor. Or to develop some
rationalization for the good fortune of the fortunate.
Responsibility is assigned to the poor themselves. Given their
personal disposition and moral tone, they are meant to be poor.
Poverty is both inevitable and in some measure deserved. The
fortunate individuals and fortunate countries enjoy their well-being
without the burden of conscience, without a troublesome sense of
responsibility. This is something I did not recognize writing forty
years ago; it is a habit of mind to which I would now attribute
This is not, of course, the full story. After World War II
decolonization, a greatly civilized and admirable step, nonetheless
left a number of countries without effective self-government.
Nothing is so important for economic development and the human
condition as stable, reliable, competent and honest government. This
in important parts of the world is still lacking. Nothing is so
accepted in our times as respect for sovereignty; nothing, on
occasion, so protects disorder, poverty and hardship. Here I'm not
suggesting an independent role for any one country and certainly not
for the United States. I do believe we need a much stronger role for
international action, including, needless to say, the United
Nations. We need to have a much larger sense of common
responsibility for those suffering from the weakness, corruption,
disorder and the cruelty of bad government or none at all.
Sovereignty, though it has something close to religious status in
modern political thought, must not protect human despair. This may
not be a popular point; popularity is not always a test of needed
intelligence. So I take leave of my work of forty years ago. I am
not entirely dissatisfied with it but I do not exaggerate its role.
Books may be of some service to human understanding and action in
their time. There remains always the possibility, even the
probability, that they do more for the self-esteem of the author
than for the fate of the world.