Arguments over the feasibility and morality of economic growth as a continuing societal goal typically pit left wing critics of capitalism, traditionalist conservatives, and strands of the environmental movement against mainstream liberals and those on the libertarian right.
There are two primary criticisms of growth from the left-traditionalist camp. One, is an ecological argument about “the limits to growth,” dating back to 1972 and start of the modern environmental movement, which argues that we cannot sustain the type of consumer capitalism we’ve embarked on over the past 40 years without global “overshoot” that will eventually lead to environmental catastrophe, resource depletion, pollution, and scarcity. A second line of attack is a moral argument that contemporary growth-oriented capitalism inevitably exacerbates poverty and inequality, undermines democracy, and sacrifices traditional values, families, and communities to the amoral logic of markets.
The “limits to growth” folks usually get the short end of the stick in these discussions and are too often painted as reactionaries, radicals, or Luddites. But they raise a series of important points about the nature of modern capitalism and liberal democracy that progressives should consider. As Gus Speth outlines in his beyond growth manifesto, inequality is at record levels within our own country and in relation to others. Global climate change continues unabated despite a zillion conferences and plans to combat it. Corporations and the wealthy exert too much control over our democratic governments. People buy too much stuff and we produce too much waste. We spend too much on the military and too little on the social needs of our own people. These are uncomfortable trends for the proponents of unfettered growth to acknowledge.
Pro-growth liberals push back that despite its drawbacks, a steadily expanding economy is critical to achieving the type of society progressives hold dear. Robert Reich and Benjamin Friedman argue that growth leads to a whole host of desired outcomes from improved education and health care to rising tolerance and respect for individual rights. As Friedman writes, “Economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.” These are clearly important political and social outcomes of economic growth that post-growth proponents tend to downplay.
Can these two perspectives be reconciled? Yes, if we structure the right kind of growth, which is essentially a political decision. Here’s Reich:
Growth is different from consumerism. Growth is really about the capacity of a nation to produce everything that’s wanted and needed by its inhabitants. That includes better stewardship of the environment as well as improved public health and better schools. (The Gross Domestic Product is a crude way of gauging this but it’s a guide. Nations with high and growing GDPs have more overall capacity; those with low or slowing GDPs have less.)