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Why it’s progressive to demand economic growth

A vital new book calls for a counter-offensive against the idea that economic growth and mass prosperity are no longer desirable.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics

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This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

It is always exciting when a book challenges basic assumptions and makes us look again at issues we thought we had fully grasped. Daniel Ben-Ami’s new book does just that. With Ferraris for All, Ben-Ami has identified a very important new trend: widespread questioning of whether economic growth benefits society. Indeed, many now conclude that the pursuit of growth and prosperity is on balance detrimental, and therefore should be tightly constrained. If Ben-Ami is right – and I believe he is – then current debates over economic development and social progress need to re-evaluated.

At first glance, the idea that Western societies are no longer intellectually supportive of economic growth and prosperity seems just flat-out wrong. The notion that increasing wealth brings social benefits and is desirable has been a foundational assumption since at least the Industrial Revolution, and probably earlier. And it appears to be going strong today. Doesn’t the economic crisis have everyone hoping for a return to growth? All of the current angst over high unemployment levels, and the debates about how best to avoid a ‘double dip’ recession, must indicate that we all recognise the value of wealth-production, right?

Not necessarily, says Ben-Ami; the popularity of growth is not as strong as you might first think. Ben-Ami, a financial journalist and frequent contributor to spiked, highlights the myriad ways that growth is questioned, if not outright opposed, today. This anti-growth trend has, in some respects, crept up on us without being noticed. And it has, according to Ben-Ami, affected the general response to the economic crisis as well.

Ben-Ami’s argument is a subtle one. He recognises that only a small minority – such as ‘deep greens’ and other marginal groups – openly call for negative or zero growth. They are not the focus of his critique. But, at the other end of the spectrum, unabashed defenders of growth in the West are also in a minority today. This represents a significant change from the past, when support for material progress was largely a given.

Most thinkers today fall between these two polar opposites, Ben-Ami contends. Growth is not rejected, but nor is it embraced; on the whole, it is considered problematic. In the abstract, people support growth, but, as Ben-Ami notes, they quickly raise concerns: ‘Is the world in danger of running out of finite resources? Does economic activity threaten to create runaway climate change? Could the world survive if China enjoyed developed-country living standards? Is greater prosperity really making us happier? Are we caught in a rut of rampant consumerism? Does economic growth create dangerous inequalities? Did the excessive greed engendered by economic growth lead to the downturn that emerged in 2008?’

Ben-Ami uses the term ‘growth scepticism’ to capture our ambiguous attitude towards material progress. Many have heard the saying, ‘I’m not a racist, but…’. As we know, after the ‘but’ comes a point that proves that the speaker is indeed racist. Growth scepticism follows a similar format. Ben-Ami says, ‘If growth scepticism were to be summed up in one phrase, it is “I’m in favour of economic growth, but…”’. What inevitably follow are conditions that undermine the original proposition, such as ‘it must be sustainable’.

Concerns about the side effects of growth have existed for a long time, going back at least to the Romantic reaction against industrialisation. Ben-Ami argues that today’s situation is different: the restrictions placed on growth are more all-encompassing than ever before, and include environmental, moral and social limits. Ben-Ami builds up a picture of the various ways that growth is challenged. To my knowledge, Ben-Ami is the first writer to bring together the usually disparate discussions of the environment, happiness and inequality, and show how they all challenge the desirability of growth.

Ben-Ami maintains that, rather than challenging growth scepticism, the 2008 recession gave it greater impetus. The growth-sceptic outlook that prevailed prior to the downturn encouraged us to explain it by reference to unbridled greed, instead of structural economic factors. And this greed and excess were said to characterise all of us, not just a few bankers. Ben-Ami cites Neal Lawson of the UK Labour Party-linked think-tank Compass, whose book All Consuming criticises mass consumption. The subtitle of Lawson’s book – ‘How shopping got us into this mess and how we can find our way out’ – makes it clear we are all to blame. Consequently, unlike earlier periods of economic crisis, there has been no radical opposition; instead, we hear calls for greater restraint in order to curb our excesses.

Looking at the world through Ben-Ami’s eyes, it does appear strange that people are so down on growth today. He catalogues the many social advances that accompany expanding wealth: people are living longer and healthier lives, and they are more educated and have greater leisure time. He recognises that serious problems such as poverty and inequality remain, but he argues that the solution to these problems is more growth, not less.

The limits to growth that critics cite are not insurmountable, says Ben-Ami. For example, he argues that the answer to climate change is more and better technology, rather than reduced energy use and cutting back on economic growth. But technology is expensive, which is why growth is so important. Cynicism about growth is negative because it denies us the resources to deal with problems.

Ben-Ami’s robust defence of growth might lead some to assume that he is a free-market conservative, but he’s not. As he points out, historically the left were supportive of growth and mass prosperity, but today ‘most self-proclaimed radicals emphasise the need to impose limits on consumption and economic growth’. In the preface, Ben-Ami aligns himself with the radical Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who wrote: ‘We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance… We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.’ As the book’s cheeky title, Ferraris for All, suggests, he wants to raise mass living standards, at a time when many respond to inequality by calling for a levelling downwards.

Ben-Ami’s discussion of how ‘progressives’ abandoned progress highlights the fact that ‘left’ and ‘right’ can be misleading categories today. In the past, when the desirability of growth was a shared assumption, the right-left debate was over the system that best delivered growth – capitalism versus communism, or free-market versus state-directed capitalism. Today many prefer to fight old wars and bang on with these same arguments. But, as Ben-Ami’s book makes clear, those who do so miss that the world has changed. There is now a more fundamental debate to be had and won – not over how best to grow, but over whether growth is desirable at all.

Ben-Ami’s book is likely to be mentioned with other works that speak up for historical advances, such as Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (reviewed in this issue of the spiked review of books here). Ben-Ami’s distinctive contribution is to clarify the ideological barriers to progress. Thanks to him, those who wish to defend the pursuit of material and social improvement know the nature of the anti-growth beast, and are thus in a better position to slay it.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress, by Daniel Ben-Ami, is published by Policy Press on 14 July. (Buy this book from Policy Press.)

This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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