Commentary on Economics for a Full World
Herman Daly’s summary of the principles and policies of ecological economics is clear and welcome, but, as he says, “it is something else entirely to say how we will secure the will, strength, and clarity of purpose to carry out these policies....Such will requires a major change in philosophical vision and ethical practice.”
Instead of trying to transition to a steady-state economy, government leaders worldwide are still fixated on the pursuit of economic growth as a top policy priority. If a “major change in philosophical vision and ethical practice” is required to defeat this fixation, then we will first need a good understanding of its power to persuade. Here are two examples—one political and one ethical—of this power.
First, economic growth is politically expedient. Growth, as John Kenneth Galbraith once called it, is the ultimate social lubricant. It draws support and approbation from all sectors of society—rich and poor, employers and employees, public and private sectors alike, because they all stand to gain. The “rising tide lifts all boats” mantra is universally appealing and therefore politically compelling. It is also, of course, a utopian economic model which hints at an abrogation of governmental responsibility, even as it helps us understand the lure of growth.
Second, and more to the point in this conversation, the growth paradigm is morally convenient. It serves as a surrogate for distributive justice, as an easy way to sidestep the difficult ethical choices which governments would otherwise have to make in an economic context circumscribed by physical limits.
The growth paradigm serves up an irresistible image of the future that is cornucopian, equitable, and ecologically benign. It tells us that North-South issues will be resolved by integrating developing and transitional economies into the free global market. It tells us that future generations will benefit from constructed capital goods which replace any resources depleted in the present, and that non-human species and their habitat will be protected by the beneficence engendered by prosperity. In short, under the dominion of the growth paradigm, the need to share—with the poor, with future generations, or with other species—is displaced by an economic surrogate spawned by the false belief that betterment follows necessarily from the unrestricted freedom to grow.
In fact, economic activity is essentially amoral; it is the sum total of mechanical transactions between consenting partners. Consistently moral outcomes—especially regarding vast and complex issues such as North-South poverty alleviation, multi-generational sustainable development, and the preservation of biodiversity—cannot be generated by amoral economic processes. Absent ethically robust socio-political oversight, ecological degradation and other pathologies will continue on a planetary scale.
The foregoing does not answer the pivotal question of how exactly the transition to a steady-state global economy might occur, but Daly has sent the clear message that philosophy, ethics, and perhaps religion too must be key ingredients in the process. I agree, adding that the growth paradigm is most vulnerable, and therefore most susceptible to change, along its moral dimension.
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