THE IDEA THAT it is the primary function of elected governments to raise the disposable income of their citizens is the great unwritten understanding of modern Western democracy. ‘The social contract of Cold War liberalism’ one commentator noted is, ‘a state-sponsored guarantee of private consumption.’ Tom Wolfe described the thirty-year boom that followed World War II as ‘one of those facts that are so big and so obvious (like the Big Dipper at the showground) [that] no one ever comments on them anymore’.
The political propositions that came with that postwar boom now also seem as unremarkable as the Big Dipper. By the time that he wrote The Affluent Society in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith presented his confident conclusions that the problem of production had been solved and that the class struggle was therefore obsolete. It was, however, a very new idea that the delivery of private material prosperity was the legitimate and credible purpose of government. This idea had two important components. The first was a new confidence in the productive potential of an economy managed by modern methods. The second was the emergence of the consumer as the pivot of the economic system, catching up with the individual’s primacy in the political system since the creation of mass electoral franchises around the turn of the twentieth century. However, these two components created a feedback between consumer aspirations (including desire for welfare such as health and retirement income) and expectations about the capacity of the economy. Prosperity feeds expectations, but nobody knows how productive the economy will be.
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