Economic growth and its discontents

2 11 2009

Speech given by me at Battle of Ideas Conference 31 October 2009 in debate with Lord Skidelsky and others

Continued economic growth is important because it means that the productivity of labour increases, we get more for less, we get more control over our lives and we become less vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and of fortune.

The whole idea of economic growth is under attack from many quarters. Sociologists such as Richard Layard represent an anti-consumerist trend. Layard argues that economic growth and its consequent material benefits do not make us happy. I would like Layard to do a survey of the millions made unemployed through this recession to see how much happier they are now that they have lost the benefits of a wage. Do we really think that poverty will make us happier?

Environmentalists argue that economic growth is inducing climate change and irrevocably damaging the world around us. These people are in reality scientific progress deniers. They do not believe that we can grow our way out of problems. Yet it is China, the fastest growing economy in the world, which is adopting and developing alternative forms of energy at a faster rate than anywhere else. It is economic growth that is driving this and making it possible.

There are also those who argue that scientific and material progress are too prone to risks and dangers to pursue safely. They question whether such things as GM foods, nuclear power or the pharmaceutical industry are not doing more harm than good. Their campaigns against scientific progress slow down and discourage investment and development delaying the benefits that progress can bring.

All of these trends have one thing in common. They represent a loss of belief in humanity and its  ability to change, adapt and grow economically and materially. Why is continued economic growth so essential? I would argue that there is a necessity argument but also  philosophical and social reasons why we need to push for further and faster economic growth.

When is enough enough? Not yet! The average global wage according to the World Bank was around £5000 before the recession began. This means that were growth to stop now and everybody to receive the average wage we would all have the standard of living of a UK pensioner without any savings. Just to get to the reasonable but not luxurious average wage in the UK of £25,000 would mean a fivefold increase globally. This means that we need of necessity further economic growth to raise the average standard of living.

Of course, many millions of people in the developing countries are way below even the average wage and require a bigger leg up. But even in the developed western economies there is still a need for the creation of extra resources. Poverty, deprivation and lack of sufficient services exist in many areas of life. My father-in -law for example was recently refused a life saving operation from the NHS essentially because it was too expensive.

From a philosophical point of view it is important that we understand how inimical anti-growth sentiments are to the whole tradition of western civilisation. The Book of Genesis says that man shall have dominion over nature and urges us to ‘go forth and multiply’. We are turning our back on what has enabled us to crawl from the swamps and into the relative comfort of the modern world, our ability to tame the hostile environment we found ourselves in. David Attenborough made this about turn explicit when he blamed the Bible for climate change earlier this year.

Many of the discontents that people have with economic growth are connected to failures of the market economy rather than growth itself. The market is often an inefficent producer and distributor. It is a system based on production for profit rather than to meet the needs of society. The market can create environmental problems and pollution. It is unstable and contains within it continued recessionary tendencies as we are experiencing now. It is often wasteful and irrational and it produces and reproduces inequality because of the division between those who own wealth and those who do not.

But the problems of how the market economy works should not blind us to the benefits of continued economic growth. We could end up throwing away the growth baby with the market bathwater.

Anti-growth sentiments turn reality on its head. Far from creating problems all human civilisation, culture and progress have been built on economic development. The most economically dynamic and successful countries have always been the most innovative, the most culturally dynamic and the most progressive in every way. The alternative is also true, that economically stagnant or backward countries have less going for them across the board. Turning our back on growth means turning our back on what makes us most human, our ability to exercise dominion over the world we live in.

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2 responses

3 11 2009
Weston Bay

You do a useful hatchet job on the naysayers and doomsayers here Rob. Well done. I too believe that economic growth has greater pros than cons and we need a lot more of it. Ok, having access to loads more consumer goodies in and of itself doesn’t make us happier but that was never really the point of growth anyway. In a capitalist society greater growth means greater profits for those who own and control the means of production. It sucks but the 20th century alternative, ie state socialism, has been dicredited and cast into the dustbin of history.

The question is, ours being a capitalist economy, how can economic growth be achieved without greater exploitation of the labour force? Or must the former be built solely on the latter. I mean there are plenty of Adam Smith junkies out there who’ll say the only way to achieve economic success is to drive the noses of the workforce into the ground eg scrap the minimum wage, eradicate unions and abandon even minimal health and safety rules. Is this the only deal in town? I’m sure the economy would expand greatly but boy, there’s a lot of us who’d pay a very heavy price when we clock in for our shift in the morning. Is greater exploitation of workers, such as myself, the one and only way to achieve the economic expansion you envisage? Or is there an alternative?

I’m sure with your political background you know what I’m talking about here.

Can’t we have our cake and eat it?

30 04 2014
Back in action - danielbenami.com

[…] * I was particularly said to miss this year’s Battle of Ideas festival in London. However, several sessions, including one on post-recession ideologies, are already available on audio. Others will hopefully soon follow on video. Rob Killick has also written up his speech on economic growth and its discontents. […]

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