Hitting back at the growth sceptics

The book savages the idea that economic progress should be constrained, with thought-provoking and illuminating analysis, supported by rigorous research and statistical evidence.

Andrew Milligan is the head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments
Andrew Milligan is the head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments

The opening words to the final chapter of this intriguing book are worth quoting in full: “Growth scepticism is in many respects the opposite to what most of its supporters assume it to be. They typically see it as humane, egalitarian, radical, respectful of the environment and scornful of the obsession with consumption in western societies. But it is inhumane, elitist, conservative, misanthropic and more preoccupied with consumption than anything else.”

I enjoyed reading this important book, for two reasons. First, it discusses a vital topic: how far, if at all, economic growth and progress should be constrained. Daniel Ben-Ami puts forward strong arguments toward rehabilitating economic growth as a desirable social goal. Second, the book is well-written. Ben-Ami covers the issues in good depth, while enabling his readers to follow up particular areas of interest.

In this thought-provoking volume, Ben-Ami challenges many of the mainstream theories of the day, from all sides of the political spectrum. His central argument is with the “growth sceptics” – various groups who wish to constrain economic progress. (article continues below)

For some, this is for environmental reasons, such as climate change, pollution or deep ecology. For others, it is for moral reasons, that consumption needs to be curtailed in some groups or societies, reflecting, say, inequality, “affluenza”, moral worries about excess, or concern about the general quality of life.

Each of these anti-growth arguments is then addressed in turn, attempting to rebut them either from a philosophical or statistical point of view, to conclude that society should become a staunch advocate of strong economic growth.

Ben-Ami’s analysis is often illuminating, notably his ability to point out the inconsistencies in an opponent’s arguments. The evils of the American consumer boom and current account imbalances should really be seen as a failure of the country’s policymakers to support a more productive economy.

He points out how advanced economics can easily fall into the trap of eco-imperialism, where the modernisation of poorer countries is condemned as undesirable. Indeed, he rightly skewers much of the anti-growth consensus as an elitist defence of privilege. As he points out “it is important to remember the high cost of not pursuing economic and scientific advance”.

”He points out how advanced economics can easily fall into the trap of eco-imperialism”

One of the excellent points about this book is its strong foundations in research. Ben-Ami discusses a broad range of philosophical, social and economic ideas, from the Enlightenment to Amaryta Sen, a prominent Indian economist. Each chapter ends with explanatory text boxes and several pages of footnotes. The final bibliography, from Adorno T W to Zakaria F, covers 33 pages. Students will find this of immense help for further work.

I hope this volume is followed by a second edition. That would remove some of its, fortunately few, flaws. Part of the book does read like the writing-up of a Google search: 100 words on One Planet Living. Personally, I would like to see deeper discussion about the externalities related to measuring GDP, an area where classical economics is sadly lacking.

There could be more in the book about moral arguments, especially Judeo-Christian or Muslim, on how to achieve a good life, the balance between the creativity associated with human development on the one hand and the excesses which can result on the other. As Sen argues “well being is not just material but also bodily, social, mental and spiritual”.

Last, I would prefer more detailed statistical analysis included in a second edition. The author is quite right to point out the many flaws in global economic statistics and the difficulties in interpreting them correctly

Nevertheless, more hard numbers to back up statements such as “the bulk of the world’s population has benefitted to a substantial extent from the rise of mass ’affluence’” or “the factual evidence shows that on balance the environment has improved considerably as a result of human activity” would support his overall argument.

The book ends on a positive note. Ben-Ami is a creature of the Enlightenment. He resists the contemporary social pessimism, the “fading of the idea of progress” and raises the bar for others. Human ingenuity and creativity should not be underestimated. Humanity can shape the planet – for the better.

Andrew Milligan is the head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments