In self-proclaimed intellectual circles, it has long been fashionable to belittle the idea of economic growth. “GDP is not the same as happiness”, some critics of growth will explain. Others will warn that excessive growth could destroy the environment and leave our planet uninhabitable. Others still will warn that the finite nature of our resources does not allow continuous growth in any case.
This kind of critique has become a pastime of the chattering classes. It is now part of polite conversation in the better suburbs of developed world cities. To question the value of growth at dinner parties in air-conditioned or heated houses while sipping French champagne and eating Italian prosciutto presumably adds a sense of intellectual gravitas to one’s physical well-being. These people probably do not even realise the self-contradiction in condemning economic growth while enjoying its blessings. . .
Economic growth is no silver bullet to all the world’s problems. But it comes close. There is overwhelming evidence that the unprecedented economic expansion humanity has experienced roughly over the past three centuries has been a great force for good. It has made our lives better in ways that would have been unimaginable to previous generations.
This should also be the response to the aforementioned critics of growth. At which stage in history do they believe we should have proclaimed the end of economic development? Certainly not in Plato’s time (4th century BC) since that would have prevented the invention of the canal lock (3rd century BC) and paper (2nd century BC). Development should not have stopped at the time the Gospels were written either since otherwise we would not even have invented the wheelbarrow (2nd century AD).
To move to more modern times, had economic development stopped when Ernst F. Schumacher suggested it should (Small is Beautiful was published in 1973), we would have never seen CD-ROMs, the Internet or the first vaccine for meningitis. And even if we had only stopped to grow and develop when Pope Francis told us to in November 2013, we would have never seen the first human clinical trials in the United States for a wearable artificial kidney – or the new iPhone 6.
Economic growth is the driver behind all of these developments because at its core, economic growth is not mainly about the production of more but about the discovery of better (though often it is both). Economic growth helps us to find new and improved ways of combining resources. The outcomes could be a new medicine, a faster way of travelling, a healthier way of eating or a better way of learning. . . Dr Oliver Hartwich
This is an extract from the New Zealand Initiative’s report The Case for Economic Growth by Eric Crampton and Jenesa Jeram.