May 30, 2020
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Edge Of Optimism

A grand vision marred by a limited, ethnocentric approach

Edge Of Optimism
The Good Society:The Humane Agenda
By J.K.Galbraith
Sinclair Steveson-IBH Rs:393;Pages:152
A few years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the most celebrated intellectuals of this century, wrote a perceptive piece in the centenary issue of the Economic Journal, which he called Economics in the Century Ahead. His vision for the discipline as also for the world economy was one of cautious optimism, nay, one of realistic optimism. Moving a few steps ahead, Galbraith has now produced a work in which he expatiates on the arguments he had proffered earlier and thereby draws up the vision of a good society.

In parts the book is absolutely riveting, especially the ones in which the author discusses in great detail the anatomy of a good society and goes on to analyse the numerous social defi-ciencies and the viscera of human con-flicts within society. Galbraith rightly concedes that we are living in an Age of Practical Judgement wherein a lot of socially acceptable and indeed socially nutritious deeds are often left undone because they are considered politically impractical—in other words, a euphemism for protecting a socially adverse interest. As ideology and doctrinaire thinking retreat, practical judgement must continue to intervene in order to preserve not just social decency but also perhaps democracy itself. At this point, Galbraith elaborates: "With economic development, social action and regulation become more important even as socialism in the classical sense becomes irrelevant."

The principal problem with Galbraith's book is that it is acutely ethnocentric and as such suffers from an overdose of optimism. Good society, says Galbraith, can be defined as one in which every member, regardless of gender, race or ethnic origin, should have access to a rewarding life. Further, the good society must articulate its aspirations through the power of the ballot. But sadly, in much of the developing world, which Galbraith barely touches upon, those institutions which form a part of the routine habit of prosperous democracies are not merely conspicuous by their absence but sometimes they are even tyrannical to those very citizens whom they have vowed to serve. In other words, as Galbraith rightly argues in the latter half of the book, democracy must be made more inclusive. The problem is not with the prescription, but with the cure itself and with the physician who administers it. Most of the developing world, caught as it is in the tweezer grip of multiple crises, is severely handicapped, for it is unable to find the perfect physician for this onerous task. And it is here that their democracies and quasi-democracies fail, for they are unable to produce self-sustaining corrective mechanisms which can stand above the all-pervasive morass and go about the act of being the economic and social ringmaster. It is precisely here that the image of Galbraith's good society appears dull and uninspiring.

The book, however, provides some valuable insights into the large bureaucracy syndrome. Galbraith argues that such a syndrome is inherent in every good society and has two basic flaws, each of which has a life of shadowed recognition. "The first and most evidently adverse tendency of organisation, large organisation in particular, is that discipline is substituted for thought."

Indeed, while discipline is unarguably important for the pursuit of the common goal of any organisation, it can only be poor substitute for creative thought. Most large organisations suffer because of the lack of coherent vision and leadership, which is largely because creative thought has been slowly throttled. The other major flaw, reveals the book, is that of bureaucratic statis, which is an inescapable fact of both public and private organisations—"a comfortable and disciplined culture resting often on past success takes the place of innovation and change". Bureaucracies are notoriously status-quoist by nature, but this is largely because of the habitat they occupy. The nature of political dynamics and the resultant vector of decisions, the constant, almost intrusive attention of the media, the peculiar type of accountability and performance appraisal that he is subjected to, and the numerous Byzantine laws and regulations which bind him—all these make the pace of the friendly neighbourhood bureaucrat slow, cautious, sometimes even dysfunctional. The real point to be noted is that no corporate would be able to produce astonishing balance sheets if put in a similar work environment

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