Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth?

This looks like an interesting book, or at least it does from reading these two reviews of it. The first review is by Brad Delong a self confessed “card carrying neo-liberal”, while the second is by Joseph Stiglitz of “Globalisation and Its Discontents Fame”. As both reviewers are orthodox economists, they find much to agree with in Benjamin Freidman’s central thesis that economic growth has made a more moral society. Delong, is worth reading because he outlines Friedman’s arguments in more detail, while Stiglitz is worth a check because he finds some flaws in the argument.

Just briefly (because I haven’t read the book yet) I’d like to raise a few queries of my own:

Firstly, has America really become more moral over say the last 20 or 30 years? There’s certainly been a lot of growth over that period of time.

Secondly, hasn’t some of the US’s (and the West’s) wealth arisen as the result of intensely immoral actions (hello colonialism)?

Thirdly, while it seems fair to say that the fortunate parts of the World have become more tolerant and less violent (as well as more able to take care of their vulnerable) in the years since the enlightenment began, and while this has taken place at the same time that there has been vast economic growth, are the two really linked? At the very least I would say that economic growth doesn’t inevitably lead to moral growth (although maybe it provides some of the space for it) what really leads to moral growth are the hard-fought battles of civil society (the abolitionists, the feminists, trade unions, the gay rights activists).

Fourthly, might there be diminishing marginal returns re morality to growth as there seem to be with utility and growth?

Fiftly, weren't some (but not all) hunter gather societies highly moral (such as the pacifist Morioris)?

And finally, might economic growth – unless it can be targeted in more environmentally friendly directions – actually lead to moral catastrophes in the future as certain key resources run out and as climate change takes hold?


Anonymous said...

The idea that a better economy makes for a more 'moral' society is interesting, really, given the intellectual history of the relationship between politics and economics: I mean, it used to be that commerce was thought to be evil (catholic thought) or corrupt the polity (republicanism); then commerce was seen as a means of taming the disorderly passions of rulers (Montesquieu), and so in this sense, good; and then merely an expression of rational interest in a world of self-interested individuals (Smith, altho Smith thought that commerce would succeed in spite of the distasteful world of politics).

Are these arguments plausible? Well, I think they're highly abstract, for a start. To put your last argument a different way: it seems to me that modern-day economics starts with a highly hobbesian analysis (ie., a lawless place of atomised individuals with few if no social ties) which isn't plausible. But if you start from there, of course any movement towards social ties (= 'morality'?) is going to be 'improvement'.

Anonymous said...

whoops I meant your 4th argument.

Anonymous said...

@#$# I meant your 5th argument.