Dissent in a Free Society

Professor of Economics at Harvard University and author of THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY and THE LIBERAL HOUR, JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH is now the United States Ambassador in India. He, made these forthright remarks at Annamalai University, where he received an honorary degree.

John Kenneth Galbraith

A FEW days after the resumption of nuclear tests — after the long moratorium, when it seemed that restraint and good sense had arrested the terrible contest which the tests signified — I had a talk with an old friend in Washington, He asked me what would have happened if the United States had been the first to take this grim and fateful step. He answered his own question: a multitude of critics would everywhere have condemned the action.

‟Why,” he inquired, “is the United States government so much more subject to criticism than the governments of other countries?‟

There is a related question which is frequently asked of me in India. It is, ‟Why are your papers and your political leaders so severe in their treatment of India?” Surely, it is suggested, there are more iniquitous objects of attack than this mild and friendly land. ‟Why do you search so assiduously for our faults? Why do you pick on Mr. Nehru?”

Any satisfactory answer to these questions must deal with the peculiar and often paradoxical role of criticism in the open society, in that society which not only accords opportunity but offers encouragement to a plurality of views, and in which it is assumed that every persuasively argued idea can have an influence, however marginal, on the march of events.

Let me say at the outset that I am not much inclined to efforts to gloss over or explain the unexplainable. There have been some aspects of recent critical comment which do not seem to me entirely encouraging or defensible. I detect a certain tendency to conclude that if it is necessary to rebuke one of the two great powers, something fairly stern must also be said about the other. Morality, I think we may agree, is not always in the middle. In the case of the nuclear test resumption. the United States was pressing actively and in good faith for a treaty at the time the tests were resumed. A diligent effort to end the tests and a unilateral step to resume them are not open to equal criticism.

There is another tendency in criticism which I doubt that anyone would condone. Some countries. never without effort, have schooled themselves to a tolerant response when attacked. They do not strike back; certainly they do not respond with threats or sanctions. It would be unfortunate if any of us, in our natural and inevitable desire to mend the manners and behavior and policies of others, were to concentrate on the safest and most amiable targets. Perhaps this does not happen very often: I believe that we should be on guard against the temptation. Let me turn now to a more agreeable and constructive role of criticism, which it is equally important that we understand.

The peculiarities and paradoxes of criticism in the open society can initially be illustrated by examining recent American comment on public education. In the United States we have the world’s oldest system of universal primary education. We also have the world’s most diverse and imaginative and, in many respects, most highly developed system of secondary education. American colleges and universities were the first in the world to make higher education a democratic right. Until they did so, university education had always been the privilege of a minute intellectual, aristocratic, or financial elite. Yet, not even the most diligent student of the recent literature on American education would have been aware of these virtues. I am obliged to tell you that he would not have been aware of them from my own rather lengthy writings on the subject, and in composing the foregoing brief encomiums, I felt strangelv out of character. The reason is that we have been seeking in these last years to improve our educational system. The first step toward improvement was a rigorous exposure of what was wrong. Nor was it considered entirely wise to admit that anything was right.

In such matters criticism is the engine of change. The individual with no children or prospect of procreation and more than a little concerned about his taxes contends that the schools are fine. That is his defense of the status quo. The concerned citizen shuns identification with such praise; for him it is the language of contentment, even of reaction. He must say that the schools are overcrowded it he is to make the case for new schools. He must say that the teachers are grossly underpaid if he is to persuade anyone that the pay of teachers must be increased. He must picture the pupils as a major menace to law and order if he is to argue that their playgrounds should be enlarged. In recent years the American educational reformer has found the Soviet Union his most valuable ally. The core of all modern criticism of our education is the claim that the Soviets are doing much better. With this they helpfully agree. The paradox, one on which we rarely reflect, is that the best friend of our schools, colleges, and universities is ordinarily the man who makes out the worst case, absolutely or by comparison with others, for their current performance.

Elsewhere in American social life, change similarly waits upon criticism. We raise the minimum wage for workers only by noting that the income of those affected is extremely inadequate. We improve the position of the aged only after enlarging on the poverty imposed by their present pensions. We can hope for the renewal and rebuilding of our cities only if we first publicize the noisome qualities of our slums. We win support tor artistic and cultural activities only by warning of our tendency toward narrow materialism. One of the best publicized states of the American union in the last year or so has been West Virginia. This mountain region is not our showpiece; on the contrary, it contains our poorest communities. And that is the reason for its fame. By drawing attention to the plight of the miners in this unfortunate part of the country, we have won measures — increased supplies of free food, steps to rehabilitate the economic life of derelict regions — which it is hoped will be a partial remedy.

It is not essential that the criticism which wins change be valid. Much of it has a ritual quality. Our trade unions win increases in pay only after appearing to affirm the classic prediction of Marx that workers under capitalism undergo progressive immiserization. Things are not quite that bad. There is a Chinese proverb which holds that even the prickly mimosa is an adequate defense against a naked man armed only with a just cause. Outarmed services win appropriations from the United States Congress only after establishing both their nakedness and the appalling prickliness of the opposing mimosa. If farm legislation in the United States is to pass, the American farmer must be pictured as the most oppressed of agriculturists. He has indeed suffered certain vicissitudes in recent years, but he remains by quite a margin the most opulent tiller in all the world.

Since social criticism is an engine of change, its employment has become a matter of political controversy. In the United States, as elsewhere, political division turns on attitudes toward change. On the one hand are those who by temperament, inertia, vested interest, or nostalgia are disposed to protect the present or retrieve the past. And on the other side are those who by compassion, disposition, or from discontent seek change, in the conviction that it will mean improvement. To the first group, social criticism is unwelcome, save perhaps as it serves to recover the past. For those who seek change, criticism is an essential instrument of political action. To the first group, criticism is gratuitous, unwise, and even defamatory. To the second group, it is a welcome resort to truth. These are not minor differences. The last presidential campaign in the United States was fought largely over the issue of social criticism. Should we make a point of our faults and shortcomings in the hope that this might be an inducement to improvement? Should we avoid mention of them lest this be taken as an admission before the world of weaknesses in the American society? There were some who thought this a rather slight issue. I am not so sure. It concerned, I think, one of the central characteristics of the open society.

ALL open societies employ criticism as an instrument of change. No close observer of the habits and customs of Indian journalists and political leaders can imagine that Indian society is in anyway retarded in this respect. A desire for improvement, whether it be in integration of linguistic groups, in the rate of economic growth, the performance of public-sector plants, the efficiency of the civil service, the discipline of students, the effectiveness of the Congress Party, the availability of housing, the quality of urban housekeeping, the supply of electric power, or, one suspects, the excesses of the monsoon, begins with a severe condemnation of what exists.

One is regularly asked in the United States about the slow progress of Indian agricultural development, the shortcomings in the management of public-sector plants, or the inadequacy of the population policy. The source and documentation for this concern, without exception, are the criticisms of Indian scholars and journalists. Their comments, like American comments on education, come from those who most want improvement.

This use of criticism as an engine of change is, in short, common to all open societies. It is also, more than incidentally, a recurrent source of error in assessing their strength. These societies wear their faults on their sleeves. Or, more accurately, they inscribe them on their banners, for this is fundamental to their mechanism of reform. The society that does not have a similar need to publicize its shortcomings may be thought by superficial men to have no shortcomings. In fact, it may merely be leaving them uncorrected. During World War II, those of us who were concerned with industrial mobilization in the United States and the United Kingdom were made constantly and painfully aware of the inadequacy of our performance. Our shortcomings were a source of joy to all journalists. In time, even those of us who were best situated to appreciate our own virtues came to agree. This was the sort of thing that democracies did very badly. Their governments lacked the powers of decision; their people were reluctant to give up their accustomed luxuries; their tendency was to do too little too late. I do not recall that we ever went so far as to blame ourselves as individuals.

All of these things were true. The wartime performance of the democracies was far from perfect. But others were imperfect as well. Mussolini looked well in prospect and rather less well in retrospect. In the closing months of the war and thereafter, it became my task to unravel the procedures by which Germans had employed their totalitarian authority to wage the war. In many respects the Germans had been even more dilatory than we. Most German factories had remained on a single shift throughout the conflict; women were never mobilized; luxury consumption was preserved until rather late in the war; the leaders had been very cautious about imposing sacrifices on a people whom they did not trust. And where we had been forced to improve our ways under the relentless criticism of the public and press, the German authorities had suffered no such onslaught. They had not been forced by public criticism to mend their course. The facade they presented to the world seemed imposing and efficient. So, in some degree, it seemed to the Nazi leaders themselves. In fooling the world, they had also fooled each other.

I am not especially sanguine about the improvability of man, and I have even graver doubts about his chances for redemption after he assumes public office. But I am persuaded that official inadequacy is something that can be enjoyed only in silence. Often, during the course of my own public experience, I have noted my first reaction to some sin of omission or commission. Invariably my initial reaction is to hope that the mistake won’t be found out. Consideration of how the matter might be corrected comes somewhat later. We may lay it down as a law that, without public criticism, all governments look much better and are much worse.

I COME now to a further point. We rely on criticism to bring change in the open society. But this instrument is not narrowly limited by national boundaries. Nothing confines the individual in the use of this instrument to his own government. There is a convention that no citizen interferes with the government of another state. The accepted modern practice, by contrast, is one of constant intervention. The citizens of every open society are constantly concerned with altering the policies of other such societies.

Specifically, when they see something in the actions of another government which does not meet with their approval, they resort to the same instrument they employ at home. They react with criticism precisely as they do to disapproved behavior by their own government. They may have less hope that they will be able to alter the actions of the other government. Their instinct is still to try.

And their instinct is sound. The open society is so described because it is open to the influence of any idea. Its decisions are not taken in accordance with an ordained and settled system of doctrine which it is pointless for any person or group to hope to alter. And influential ideas can come from anywhere; no exclusive license for criticism is issued with a passport. It would be silly to suggest that external criticism is as influential as that which is reinforced by the sanction of the franchise. But a remarkable number of factors combine with natural receptivity to ideas to ensure the overseas critic a hearing. Domestic critics of a policy regularly draw reinforcement from attacks by friendly foreigners. If something induces an angry uproar abroad, many will take it as an indication of mismanagement or error. In an interdependent world a critical press may eventually have an adverse effect on something important — on trade, aid, votes in the United Nations, or the rooms accorded to tourists. The opinion of people in other countries owes some of its influence to the simple circumstance that people have been taught to think it is important. Thomas Jefferson began the most famous of American proclamations by observing that it was called forth by ‟a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

In consequence of this use of criticism as an instrument of internal government, the open societies are vigorous critics of each other. Indian journalists, commentators, and political leaders attack the United States on racial integration, military alliances, Far Eastern policy, the movies, and a host of other sins. This is not the mark of a misanthropic nature, even among the journalists. The criticism we have long observed comes with greatest vigor from our most devoted friends. This is to be expected. One’s friends arc most concerned to correct policy which seems to them in error. Nor are they without success. It was, for example, the drumfire of criticism with which Indian journalists attacked various theses on the evils of neutralism in the last decade which was influential in their early abandonment.

And the reaction with which we are dealing is reversible. When the American journalist, commentator, or congressman looks similarly askance at India’s economic organization, agricultural system, United Nations posture, or some internal social or religious institutions, he is similarly assuming that his words will be influential, for it is his faith that any argument must be influential.

I do not wish to carry these matters to extremes. At all times some men will speak out of antagonism. Some, as I said at the outset, will criticize as the result of calculation, not conviction. But, as between the open societies, it is very likely that men will speak out of the conviction that what they criticize can be changed.

This peculiar role of criticism, we should observe, operates in substantial measure only as between open societies. It is another of the paradoxes of social criticism that, although we may be much less enamored of the behavior of a closed society, we will usually be much less comprehensive in our criticism of that behavior. The closed system, being closed, is unresponsive to our influence. This we sense, so we do not bang hopelessly on the blank wall. We reserve our arguments and even, on occasion, our anger for more responsive and malleable societies.

During World War II, any superficial observer could easily have supposed from reading the American newspapers that the real enemy of the American people was still the British. And the inadequacies of the Americans enlivened many a long evening of English conversation. No German general came in for nearly so much adverse American comment as Montgomery. Nor did the British accord nearly so much critical scrutiny to any enemy leader as to Eisenhower. Neither of the open societies was nearly so harsh on the Soviets as it was on the other. The reason was not that the government of Marshal Stalin was regarded with particular approval in Britain and the United States, although no one would deny it the admiration it earned for its resistance. People did not criticize the Soviet government, for the simple reason that no one supposed that such criticism would have much effect.

SOME simple guides to everyday action and reaction emerge from the foregoing, and let me specify them.

First, and most obvious, we must recognize that criticism is essential in the intercourse of open societies. We should expect it. We should expect on occasion to be angered by it. Anger is one of the responses to ideas which all skilled purveyors seek, for it is the mark of a peculiarly penetrating impact,

Second, we ought to remember that the open society, by its nature, puts its worst foot forward. This is the way it improves itself. If this is not kept in mind, we will have a highly distorted view of the achievements of these societies, especially in comparison with other systems. The United States maintains in India a rather substantial organization with the function, among others, of defending our society from its critics. The critics are mostly Americans.

Third, we must remember that, although criticism is sometimes an instrument of conflict, it is more often an index of fraternity. Formal and dull men say that one does not criticize a friendly government. They should know that it is friendly governments that one does criticize. Evil by one s antagonists is assumed. Lapses from virtue by one’s friends call for immediate corrective comment.

Fourth, we must recognize that, as between the open societies, criticism represents, in effect, an extension of franchise, in a most valuable form. We have been told by every prophet of the commonplace that this is a small and highly interrelated world. Actions of the United States Congress have a bearing on the rate of Indian economic development and well-being. Decisions by the Indian government substantially condition American foreign policy. Is it surprising that we should have developed ways of influencing the decisions by which we are affected? On the contrary, it was natural and desirable. And it was inevitable that criticism, the principal instrument by which the citizen brings influence to bear in the open society, should be internationally employed.

Finally, we must not equate criticism as between the open societies with criticism as between the open and closed systems. One does no service, here or elsewhere, by establishing overly exclusive categories. I doubt that any national community is wholly unresponsive to the influence of ideas. Yet, the formal acceptance of a ruling ideology and the formal alignment of expressed opinion therewith enormously modify the impact of both internal and external opinion, and, indeed, are designed to do so. The result is of extreme importance. Since criticism does not appreciably affect the policy of such communities, its deployment is not rewarding. This is soon discovered or sensed. The critics then concern themselves with those societies they have found responsive. It is not the most unwelcome policy that arouses the most objection. Rather, it is the one that seems most susceptible to the influence of criticism, and hence most subject to change. Criticism, no less than the lambs and the calves, soon develops an instinct for the greener pasture.