New Internationalist

The Nature of Mass Poverty

November 1980

by John Kenneth Galbraith

Penguin (paperback)
UK: £1.25 Aus: $3.95

Galbraith, a renowned critic of American affluence, is now listened to in development circles. He writes with ele­gance and lucidity, which makes it the more disappointing that this contribution should prove so banal.

He begins his analysis of mass poverty with a useful survey of conventional wisdom. He dismisses as superficial the widely believed but little discussed factors of climate and race. He astutely shows that the logic of postwar aid based on capital investment and technical expert­ise mistook the diagnosis for the cure. Above all, he correctly stresses the differ­ence between the politics of affluence and the politics of poverty.

In his own explanation, however, he re­veals himself as an unashamed Malthusian. The poor countries remain poor, he argues, because they are caught in an ‘equilibrium of poverty’: any improve­ment in living standards will be lost in a rise in population. The poor, moreover, have accommodated themselves to the culture of poverty. Religion sanctions what their reason tells them: change is usually for the worse.

His cure for mass poverty is to break the vicious circle by enabling the non­conforming few to escape. He therefore welcomes industrialisation and the assoc­iated urbanisation. He advises rulers to provide compulsory education and to foster capitalist development under strong government. The greatest stress is laid on birth control. His short book then ends with a passionate celebration of migration.

The heroic simplicity of his thesis will be attractive to many. But Galbraith’s experience is clearly limited: he refers mainly to India and harks back to his childhood Ontario. His models of success are Taiwan, Brazil and Singapore. He briefly mentions China only to suggest that its achievements are more due to its traditional administration than to its socialist ideology.

Again, he seriously underestimates the legacy of colonialism, the unequal distri­bution of land, the adverse terms of trade, the finite supply of resources, the suffer­ing of urban squalor and illegal migration.

There is little new in Galbraith’s diagnosis. Indeed, he openly praises the ‘instinct’ of earlier industrial ‘progress’. His work will undoubtedly confirm the view that Providence has ensured, in capitalist countries at least, that partial evil is really universal good.

Peter Marshall

This column was published in the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 093

New Internationalist Magazine issue 093
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