Thursday 29 July 2010

Goods are good

Ferraris for All: In Defence of Economic Growth, by Daniel Ben-Ami (Policy Press, 2010)

Reviewing Daniel Ben-Ami’s excellent Ferraris for All, Bryan Appleyard dubbed him a ‘hard human exceptionalist’ for his defence of the need for, the possibility and benefits of economic growth and progress. Bryan may be a soft animal apologist when it comes to whether or not growth is good, but at least he does recognise the crucial importance and timeliness of the debate. He is also quite correct to identify the concept of human exceptionalism as core to where one chooses to take a stand politically today. So, which are you? Animal or human? Noble in reason, infinite in faculty, or no, not really, not so much? Does nature impose limits and obligations on humanity that we must learn to accept, or should we shape it in our interests? Must we live within the means of just one planet or is another world possible? Could, and should, we all enjoy the abundance once the jealous preserve of elites?

Ben-Ami’s starting point is what appears to be a fundamental paradox in mainstream attitudes to growth. When, as never before in human history, so much is owned by so many, why is it that they are so scorned and feared by the few? Less than half of people in the developing world now live below the $2 a day mark. This is an amazing, awe-inspiring, achievement: especially against the backdrop of a world population accelerating towards 7bn. Yet increasingly mainstream views warn these people away from the prosperity of the developed world and its insatiable consumers, caught on a relentless treadmill of novelty and status envy. The Prince of Wales finds spiritual lessons amongst the rag-pickers and open sewers of Mumbai’s Daravi slums. Millionaire Zac Goldsmith celebrates the poverty and ignorance of tribal peoples and laments the misery that ‘Western’ ideas like progress bring them.

Identifying and challenging such ideas, this ‘growth scepticism’, is the task undertaken by Ben-Ami in Ferraris for All. He traces the slow erosion of the concept of progress in Western thought post-war: the loss of faith in human productivity, most notably by what was once the left, who would now have the people chained rather than win a world no longer theirs for the taking. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth is just one of many books that point to a ‘dilemma of growth’: caused by the ‘question of how a continually growing economic system can fit within a finite ecological system’. Limits – moral, social and natural – are to be served cold all round as a consequence. We must learn to live within our means, level down our ambitions in the name of fairness, and ration nature’s scare resources.

If ‘nature is just another word for our home’ as Appleyard claims, it is not the same nature that God gave us. We have changed it beyond recognition. Nature is very much improved as a result. We have cured diseases and made the inhabitable hospitable. Not only have we turned deserts into farmland and golf courses, reclaimed Holland from the sea, we have also rendered nature into something we might actually enjoy and love rather than fear. After all, the very possibility of the emotional response to nature that we see in Rousseau, Goethe, Wordsworth and Turner was not possible without overcoming natural dangers and obstacles through technological advancement. Kenneth Clarke in Civilisation writes that no ordinary traveller had admired mountain scenery before 1739: home, before then, to ‘bandits and heretics’. Wolves, goblins, and bears too, he might have added. Despite this, our work is far from done. People live in poverty with rats as bedfellows. Needless millions die from malaria.

Equally, the labour that has bettered nature has changed us too. We live longer, healthier, better-educated, more prosperous lives. We travel and interact with each other across the globe. We work together in a global economy and enjoy the resulting prosperity. We do things as well as consume things. We are producers. Yes, of course, we are indeed natural beings as the young Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts knew: but we are more specifically ‘human natural beings’ whose ‘human nature’ finds its cause and explanation in human history and society. That is to say, we meet our natural needs in an inherently social way, transforming the world to our ends, humanising nature and, in so doing, creating the breathing space from the brutal struggle to survive that is necessary to humanise ourselves.

Our capabilities are not bounded by nature. Rather by standing outside nature, becoming human, we become boundless.

This is not Panglossian fantasy. Ferraris accepts the considerable problems and challenges we face. It just believes we can act on them. In fact it argues that our nervousness about acting actually makes many problems not only appear but become so very much worse than they really are, or might be. Holding back on development due to uncertainty – the precautionary principle – condemns people to remain in poverty.

To critique growth scepticism is to expose the culture of limits, the fears, that hold back development and progress today to a far greater degree than the limits and contradictions of the market.

The implication of Ferraris is that the incessant focus on limits of all kinds today is about the idea of, the necessity for, limits per se rather than specific limits themselves. It stems from an attitude that sees humanity as flawed and in need of control. Limits are then sought out to play this role. They don’t really matter in themselves. Any attempt to argue that such and such a particular limit – the ‘tyranny of oil’ – can be overcome – with biofuels - will be countered almost immediately with another limit – a claimed shortage of land. We are left impotent with nowhere to turn. To act is a sin.

It is this underlying attitude towards the human – that we are weak and fragile, yet rapacious and dangerous – that demands passivity in the face of limits or, maybe more accurately, demands their active acceptance. This is where the problem and the debate lies. We should indeed recognise the real limits we face, those that matter to us, and transcend them. We do need to act on climate change. On poverty. On inequality. It is entirely wrong, however, to think that we must act within the limits of nature. We need more growth and for that we need more energy. Nature is not limited in this respect. As Philippe Legrain observes with breezy and refreshing optimism in Aftershock: ‘Tap the limitless energy of the sun, the wind and the atom and the false choice between growth and greenery is removed’.

We can develop Ben-Ami’s arguments and still concede the truth of some of the sceptics’ views. I for one have no problem with people being properly sceptical of growth. Questioning enquiry is always positive. Perhaps growth cynicism is a better target for the Ferraris critique. There is a truth, after all, in anti-consumerism. Consumption as a form of identity - I am my brand - is indeed a matter of shallow decadence: albeit democratic. Higher standards of living, however, are simply good for all: the result of us producing for our needs and desires. We should aspire to a marriage of material and spiritual prosperity. We need to be hard-headed, though, about the fact that less of the former does not lead to more of the latter. The material really does matter. Goods are good. They can also foster the spiritual side. Books are goods. Paintings. Medicines. And fast cars too.

Why does growth scepticism matter so much? Because growth benefits us all. We should not be taken in by the often apparently radical guise of growth scepticism. It is, as Ben-Ami argues, really an intensely conservative position: fearful of change, especially social change. It is opposed only to the destructive aspects of the market economy and seeks to stabilise it through regulation and restraint. Since the key driver of the economy is seen today as individual greed, then of course this restraint falls most heavily on us – the imperative becomes one of individual behavioural change. What is deemed most dangerous is the possibility of us all having more – the planet could not cope – and, therefore, most of us must making do with less. That is what is meant by sustainable development. Yet capitalism advances through a process that Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’: the old must make way for the new. Without the destructive aspects, we will not have change but rather stagnation and decline. For example, the preservation of massive overcapacity in the car industry in America when workers and resources could be shifted to, for example, biomedicine.

To attempt to create a sustainable, resilient, capitalism is a fool’s errand, one that condemns us all to ever less: to an alternative world of low carbon, low productivity, and bovine contentment. Radical growth sceptics fail to appreciate the irony that they argue that there is no alternative to the limits of nature and, by so doing, limit our humanity.

How should we develop Ben-Ami’s ideas further? We must definitely hold on to core principles of the Enlightenment: humanism; individual freedom; and universalism. We should be watchful, however, of how these terms are increasingly redefined by those who have little or no faith in their original meanings. Matthew Taylor’s recent essay for the RSA, ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ [PDF], is just one case in point: stressing the ‘frailties of human nature’ and reason; demanding that we ‘reconcile human aspiration and the limits of our natural environment’. If this is enlightenment, it’s Kant in a sustainable straitjacket, Thomas Paine by the gloom of an energy-saving bulb.

Fundamentally, it is a matter of taking responsibility. It is true to say that it is not good enough to muddle along with short-termist responses to the challenges we face. On this many environmentalists are absolutely correct. We need decisive action now in our long-term interests if we are to avoid collapse into either barbarism or decadence.

Responsibility is a word whose usage is coterminous with capitalism. It used to mean the independence to act without authorisation, our ability to pay our debts and meet our promises. It was the responsibility of authority and the free subject. Today it has been completely redefined to mean having and doing less. We are constantly reminded that with rights come responsibilities, weighing upon us as obligations. Bankers are irresponsible. Gordon Brown thought boom and bust was dead, that we were living in the Great Moderation, but now castigates that period as the Age of Irresponsibility. To be responsible now is to act with restraint, within limits, with diminished agency: more like children than adults. Authority is ceded to other parties (parents): the state; the expert; science; nature. Politicians do not even trust themselves with the economy: it is increasingly given over to the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. We need to take it back.

Specifically, to give but a few examples, we should argue for less regulation in business and research, greater investment in transport, infrastructure and home building (yes, on the green belt), and less pseudo-populist condemnation of bankers. Finance did not get us in this mess on its own. It was compensating, in the developed economies, for that lack of growth that is really to blame. Weighting down finance with yet more regulation sends out quite the wrong message.

This is an exceptional and much needed book. There are those who concede the need for growth (but never too much) in the developing world, but those who defend it in the West, and for everyone, are rare indeed. Time to stand up and be counted, raise hard heads above the parapet. It is only lack of confidence that can bring us down.


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