On the Value of Economic Growth #6 – Restrictions, Implications, Conclusion

6. Restrictions and implications

As elaborated in the previous section, contrary to the second idea of the stationary state paradigm, the existence of growth is normatively relevant and a stationary state is not desirable in principle. However, this does not necessarily mean that, maximising economic growth is always desirable without restrictions. In the following, possible limitations and objections to the setting of economic growth as a normative goal as well as the implications of such a goal are discussed.

6.1 Inclusive growth

One shortcoming of GDP per capita as a measure of economic growth is that it only measures the aggregate economic growth of an entire society. However, it is often the case that while an economy grows as a whole, certain parts of the economy and society experience stagnation or even decline at the same time. One of the reasons for this is that growth is accompanied by creative destruction, which increases the value of economic output for society as a whole, but at the same time imposes costs on some individuals in the form of insolvencies and usually temporary job losses. The costs and benefits of growth can be distributed very unequally in a society under certain circumstances.

In those parts of society that are primarily affected by the costs and do not participate in growth, the positive effects of growth often largely fail to materialise.  It is therefore possible that an economy as a whole may grow in the sense of rising GDP per capita, but that the positive effects of growth do not actually materialise for large sections of the population because growth does not actually take place for them.

The development of the USA in recent decades can be cited as an example of this. Even though the USA experienced an overall increase in real GDP per capita of 54.89% between 1990 and 2019 (World Bank Open Data 2023), the average real hourly wage for non-managerial employees largely stagnated between 1978 and 2018 (cf. DeSilver 2018). At the same time as the overall stagnation of non-managerial employees, the remuneration of managers increased massively during this period. For example, the CEOs of the 350 largest listed US companies saw their real remuneration increase by 1,460.2% between 1978 and 2021 (Bivens & Jori 2022).

On closer inspection, however, this stagnation below management level also represents a massive change for some sections of the population: for male employees, the median income fell by around 10% during this period, while it rose by around 25% for female employees in the same period (see Reeves et al. 2019). For male employees between the ages of 25 and 54 who have no higher education qualifications than high school, the average real income even fell by 18.2% between 1973 and 2015 (Binder & Bound 2019, p. 163).

So while overall economic productivity has increased in the US over the last few decades and the economy as a whole has grown strongly, growth has not taken place in all parts of the economy. The benefits of overall growth have been unevenly distributed throughout society, so that not all parts of society have actually experienced growth. As a result, from the perspective of large sections of the US population, their own economic situation has stagnated; and some groups, such as male non-academics, have even experienced an erosion of their income.

As a result, as postulated by the theories in the previous section, dissatisfaction with democracy has risen among these growthless sections of the population (cf. Foa et al. 2020, p. 42); and their resentment fuelled by economic stagnation and erosion is one of the main drivers behind the rise of right-wing populism in recent years (cf. Komlos 2018, p.4). Among male non-academics, Trump was the most popular candidate in 2016 (cf. Jones 2018).

If the positive effects of economic growth are to have an impact on society as a whole, it is essential that growth not only takes place at an aggregated level, but that as many sections of the population as possible actually participate in it. Accordingly, it is not enough to focus solely on the increase in GDP per capita; instead, it seems essential for a normative assessment to analyse how growth is distributed in society.

Government measures such as transfer payments or investments in social mobility, e.g. through education, can be useful interventions here in order to enable the broadest possible distribution of the fruits and thus the positive effects of growth. However, this can also lead to an obstructive paradox: As the acceptance of such egalitarian social policy, which distributes the fruits of growth more equally, is promoted by the presence of growth, while its absence tends to strengthen anti-egalitarian tendencies, the vicious circles described in section 5.5 can also set in here. This can also be observed in the USA, where the groups that participate least in economic growth are often predominantly in favour of right-wing populist, anti-egalitarian policies.

However, this also shows that the exclusive focus on the fair distribution of existing prosperity often favoured by representatives of the stationary state cannot be sustainable in practice. Societies can only become economic non-zero-sum games through growth, which create the basis for the acceptance and feasibility of such redistribution measures through non-zero-sum thinking and pro-social attitudes.

One of the implications of the arguments presented in this paper is therefore that the popularised exclusion of growth by representatives of the stationary state when considering the most egalitarian distribution possible is a mistake. There is not, as you often assume, a fundamental antagonism between growth and egalitarian distribution, but the relationship is much more complex. The two even appear to be complementary to a certain extent in the long term. Neglecting growth undermines the possibility of egalitarian social policy, while neglecting the question of distribution in turn undermines the foundations of growth and its positive effects. Accordingly, a consequentialist normative assessment of redistributive measures would seem to have to take into account their impact on economic growth.

A second related implication is that the focus of social policy measures should not only be on distribution, but also on making economic growth as inclusive as possible. In practice, this means, for example, that investments in social mobility through educational measures, which make it easier for disadvantaged groups to find new jobs in growing sectors and experience rising incomes, should be prioritised more than mere monetary benefits. Such measures not only enable those affected to achieve the increase in subjective well-being discussed in 5.2 through the relative improvement in socio-economic status, they also contribute to more growth and a better distribution of the resulting positive effects.

6.2 The correct growth rate

Growth is always normatively relevant and desirable because it instrumentally helps us to achieve and maintain a wide range of normatively desirable states, but does this mean that we should always consider maximising growth as normatively desirable?

The answer seems to be no.

On the one hand, the effects brought about by growth are not necessarily always at the top of the ethical and political agenda. For example, it can be assumed that a country waging a war of defence against a genocidal invader has other short-term priorities than the long-term preservation of its democratic institutions through a positive growth rate. On the other hand, an undifferentiated pursuit of maximum growth risks cannibalising its positive effects, as excessively rapid and qualitatively unsustainable growth in particular can generate negative externalities. With this in mind, a moderate growth rate that increases the positive effects of growth but avoids harmful excess by weighing up various factors often appears to be more desirable in normative terms than the maximum theoretically possible. These factors include, among others:

1. creative destruction. Higher growth rates are enabled by higher rates of Creative Destruction, which in turn is enabled by investment in innovation. However, high rates of Creative Destruction generate stress and health-inducing negative externalities in the form of economic volatility, unemployment and increasing socio-economic inequality. These negative externalities can outweigh the positive effects of growth in the short term and undermine the institutional foundations of growth in the long term. Accordingly, it makes sense to invest in measures such as social security systems that mitigate these negative externalities of creative destruction – even if this reduces the capital available for investment in innovation and thus the growth rate in the long term. According to some authors, Denmark is an example of a successful balance between the maximisation of growth and the simultaneous reduction of these externalities. In the 1990s, the Danish government introduced comprehensive unemployment insurance at the same time as deregulating the labour market to stimulate growth. According to empirical studies, the this completely eliminated the negative effect of unemployment and insolvencies on health and mortality rates in Denmark, which is very pronounced in other countries without such extensive social security systems, such as the USA (see Aghion 2023, p. 218 – 222).

2. inequality. In order to achieve the highest possible aggregate growth, at least in the short term, it would be necessary to accept high levels of inequality in society – or even to expropriate wealth from the poor and redistribute it to the rich. Tyler Cowen illustrates this with a thought experiment (cf. Cowen 2018, p.89): Since the rich generally have more opportunities to invest capital as efficiently as possible in growth-driving companies and can therefore generate higher returns, such a redistribution could massively increase the growth rate. Assuming, for example, that the return on capital of the rich is 8% and that of the poor is 1%, and 20% of the return of the rich would trickle down to the poor due to the positive effects of growth, it would be necessary from a utilitarian perspective and in order to maximise growth to redistribute the assets of the poor to the rich, as the poor would ultimately receive a return of 1.6% and aggregate growth would be higher. Such anti-egalitarian redistribution from rich to poor, even if it would ultimately have a positive effect by increasing the welfare of the poor, should be rejected for several reasons:

On the one hand, high inequality has many negative effects, such as declining social mobility and the promotion of destructive resentment, which can also destroy the positive effects of growth and its social and institutional foundations in the long term. In the short term, high inequality can therefore increase the growth rate, but in the long term, equality and growth appear to be complementary to a certain extent, as already described in 6.1.

Secondly, as Cowen himself writes, such a redistribution would represent an unacceptable encroachment on human rights, especially property rights (cf. Cown 2018, p.90).

3. human rights. Even if there is often disagreement about their philosophical justification and their concrete scope, according to various surveys, there is a large consensus among the majority of the world’s population that human rights are important and that the UN should promote them (see Nickel 2019). According to Robert Nozick, rights, reflecting the Kantian principle of man as an end in himself, act as restrictions on the actions we may use to achieve our goals (cf. Nozick 2013, p.30). Accordingly, we should not seek to maximise growth through methods that violate human rights. In practice, however, the preservation of human rights and long-term economic growth rarely represent an actual contradiction. Even if historically some societies, such as the Soviet Union in the course of Stalinist industrialisation policies, were able to achieve medium-term increases in growth rates with measures that violated human rights (cf. Hunter 1973, p. 242 – 245), the empirical literature repeatedly shows that in the long term, respect for human rights is positively correlated with economic growth (cf. The Danish Institute For Human Rights 2018). Authoritarian regimes that disregard human rights generally only seem to be able to increase the growth rate in the short term, but inhibit growth in the long term. This could also be observed in the Soviet Union: The growth boom of Stalinist industrialisation and the post-war period, was followed by several decades of sustained, relatively low growth, interspersed with phases of stagnation (see Hanson 2016, pp. 242 – 248), which ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR. A similar example is provided by the authoritarian People’s Republic of China, which has so far experienced less growth than the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan, whose GDP per capita is twice as high (Maddison Project Database 2020; CEIC 2023).

4. quality of growth. There are qualitative differences in growth that are not captured by GDP. Depending on which inputs are used to drive growth, the type and quantity of the resulting negative externalities change. Growth resulting from an increase in working hours or resource consumption appears less desirable than growth resulting from technological innovation. But there are also qualitative differences in growth through technology: in the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, global growth was strongly fuelled by technologies that were associated with high ecological externalities. This trend has now reversed in developed countries, where growth is increasingly being driven by green, lower-emission innovations (see Ritchie 2021). In many developing countries, however, growth is still being driven by high-emission technologies, partly because these countries are often prevented from directly implementing newer, more sustainable technologies by patents and a lack of local expertise (see Bonnet et al. 2018, p. 17, 36). A transfer of green innovations from wealthier countries could therefore significantly improve the quality of growth in many developing countries.

But even in developed countries, there is still plenty of potential to improve the ecological quality of growth, the realisation of which could even increase the growth rate under certain circumstances as a secondary effect. One example of this are political measures that accelerate the creative destruction of unsustainable sectors, such as bans on technologies with high emissions or CO2 prices. The research and development in which companies invest their capital in the search for new, growth-driving innovations is strongly influenced by path dependencies. Companies that already have a competitive advantage in a certain area, such as combustion engines, due to patents and existing production capacities, have stronger incentives to continue investing in this area than in a new one, such as electric engines (see Aghion 2023, p.69).

In such cases, the fear of creative destruction among established companies and political institutions often acts as an obstacle to implementing more sustainable technologies – and measures that defy this fear by breaking path dependencies and incentivising more sustainable innovations can improve the quality of growth and also increase the growth rate in the long term (see Aghion 2023, p. 192). However, even if these measures have no or even a negative effect on the growth rate, a qualitative improvement in growth appears to be preferable to quantitative maximisation under certain circumstances.

5.  Existential risks. As shown in section 5.4, economic growth contributes to a reduction in existential risks in the long term, although this does not apply to all risks. Certain anthropogenic risks arising from innovation can increase in the short and medium term as a result of growth. For example, innovation and economic growth can lead to the production of weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons or biological warfare agents not only becoming possible at all, but also becoming increasingly cheaper over time, so that their proliferation and thus the risk of intentional or unintentional release increases (cf. Ord 2020, p. 122). Other technological innovations, such as in the field of artificial intelligence, could also create existential risks if implemented too quickly, which would be avoidable if implemented more slowly (cf. Ord 2020, p.152). With regard to such risks arising from technology, it may be justified under certain circumstances to temporarily slow down the rate of technological innovation and thus economic growth through selective interventions in the freedom of research in order to give political institutions enough time to develop countermeasures that reduce the risks again (cf. Ord 2020, p.206).

6. future growth. Historically, political efforts that seek to maximise growth at all costs in the short term are often both economically and politically unstable and pave the way back to stagnation in the long term (cf. Cowen 2018, p.30). With regard to the future, and in particular future generations, it seems morally imperative to shape growth in such a way that it is sustainable and does not cannibalise future growth. The advantage of setting the preservation of future growth as a normative goal is that this goal can also integrate many of the other factors discussed in this section. Human rights violations, existential catastrophes, increases in the morality rate through excessive creative destruction and ecological externalities all tend to have the long-term effect of damaging the conditions for growth and thus reducing future growth.

7. the value of the future. The extent to which we prioritise economic growth depends largely on the value we ascribe to the future, and therefore the discount rate we apply when weighing up current and future costs and gains (cf. Cowen 2018, p.64). This becomes particularly apparent when it comes to weighing up long-term welfare improvements through growth against short-term improvements through distributive measures. For example, if the world were to end tomorrow and the value of the future were to be zero, it would be pointless to invest in growth and instead all the world’s wealth could be redistributed in favour of a global farewell party (cf. Cowen 2018, p.84). However, if we attribute the same value to the future as to the present and assume that humanity will continue to exist for a long time, redistribution measures in the present only make sense up to the point at which they do not harm growth, because the future welfare gains from higher growth outweigh the losses of the present (cf. Cowen 2018, p.81, 93 – 94).

To summarise, it can be argued that although these factors make growth normatively desirable in principle, in practice the question of the specific type of growth must be asked, as not all types appear to be equally desirable. Aiming for growth without taking into account factors such as the degree of its inclusion and its quality can otherwise lead to its positive effects being cannibalised by negative externalities. However, as historical experience shows, the reduction of such negative externalities is possible with the help of political regulations and often even promotes growth in the long term.

6.3 Post-materialistic values and rudiments of a zero-sum world

Conventional and traditional moral concepts often emphasise that various post-materialistic values and attitudes should be more important than economic achievements and the accumulation of wealth associated with growth. Depending on the interpretation and position, these post-materialist values encompass a wide range of non-material aspects, from religiosity to secular ones such as altruism, ecological awareness, justice, solidarity, self-realisation and others. Too much material wealth, or the very pursuit of it, is often seen as an obstacle that can distract from the realisation of such values. Corresponding calls and admonitions can be found, for example, in the Old Testament (see e.g. Luther Bible 2017, Eccl 5:11, or Prov 11:28) as well as in the New Testament (see e.g. Luther Bible 2017, Mt 6:19 – 20, or Mk 10:25) and in the Koran (see e.g. Koran 2021, 18:47). These religious ideas, especially in Christianity, often go hand in hand with the idea that material prosperity, if it is to be achieved at all, then only as a secondary reward for morally correct behaviour according to these values (see e.g. Luther Bible 2017, Dt 11:13-15). However, these ideas also appear in the works of supposedly secular philosophers such as Rawls, who writes in A Theory of Justice, for example, that prosperity would be “a meaningless distraction at best if not a temptation to indulgence and emptiness” for the achievement of justice at a certain point (cf. Rawls 2005, p.290), although he does not justify this any further.

As alluded to in 5.1, proponents of the stationary state paradigm often assume that such moral concepts could unfold better in a stationary state and would also promote the transition to this state from a certain level of prosperity. From the perspective of these ideas, one objection to the arguments of this paper could be that the positive effects of growth it elaborates depend on the fact that most people currently ascribe a disproportionately high value to their economic status – but it would be normatively more desirable for people to stop doing this and instead adopt more post-materialist values. If they did so, their well-being would be less dependent on their economic status and growth would no longer be so relevant.

Several arguments can be put forward against this objection:

1) Firstly, the objection already raised in section 6.1 that certain psychological mechanisms by which people generally attribute a high value to their relative socio-economic status have an evolutionary and neurological basis (see Koski et al. 2015), i.e. are inherent to human nature, so that such a change in value seems implausible. Historical attempts to force such a change in values have so far failed. One example of this is the concept of the New Soviet Man, or the fact that even theocracies such as the Islamic Republic of Iran show the same correlations between economic prosperity and life satisfaction as other states (Ortiz-Ospina & Roser 2017).

2) Even if people were no longer to attribute value to their socio-economic status, this could only cancel out the positive effects of growth on the creation of non-zero-sumness, including institutions and relative satisfaction. However, the positive effects of growth on the objective improvement of life and the reduction of existential risks would remain, as these appear to be largely independent of whether people have materialistic or post-materialistic values. Growth would therefore continue to be normatively relevant, albeit to a lesser extent.

3) The most important argument, which also has the greatest implications for practical philosophy as a whole, is that the intuitions on which these objections are based are simply wrong. Contrary to the idea that economic prosperity is detrimental to the realisation of post-materialist values, growth and prosperity are mostly beneficial to them.

If, as in section 5.5, we look at human history and its transformation from exploitative, exclusionary institutions to increasingly altruistic and egalitarian societies made possible by growth, the reality appears to be the other way round, contrary to these intuitions: Growth and prosperity are precisely what enable the realisation of various post-materialist values, such as altruism and egalitarianism. Only when people feel secure in their economic status through constant growth and a high level of prosperity do they prioritise it less and turn to the realisation of post-materialistic values, becoming more tolerant and open towards other people and ideas. At the same time, the objective improvements in their lives made possible by growth offer them more opportunities to do so. However, as soon as economic conditions stagnate or erode, people once again devote themselves increasingly to materialistic values and the defence of their economic status. This can also be seen in empirical studies, according to which the appreciation of post-materialistic values such as freedom, quality of life, sociality and self-realisation increases in times of economic growth in societies, but decreases again in times of stagnation or recession (cf. Inglehart 2018, p.29). The exception is religiosity, which disappears with increasing prosperity – although according to the same studies, people in poorer, religious countries are nevertheless more materialistic in their values overall than people in prosperous, secularised countries (cf. ibid. p.26, 33).

If the goal is the greatest possible realisation of post-materialist values and the establishment of just societies, it is not the stationary state that offers the best conditions for this, but rather an inclusive, growing economy.

But if this is the case, why do common intuitions – as made explicit in religious texts and the works of many philosophers – suggest that growth and prosperity are detrimental to the achievement of post-materialist values and just societies?

Even if the detailed elaboration of these intuitions and their reasons goes beyond the scope of this paper, the previous explanations at least point to one possible explanation:

As elaborated in sections 3.1 and 5.5, humanity has lived in a state of stagnation for most of its history. The agrarian societies in particular, in which the religions that still strongly influence our moral intuitions today, such as Christianity or Islam, emerged, were therefore characterised by zero-sum thinking (cf. Foster 1965, p.67).

In such societies, improving one’s own economic status was often only possible at the expense of others – and usually not accessible to the masses due to the strong social stratification by institutions such as the nobility. Those who tried to accumulate wealth in such societies often harmed their fellow human beings and attracted resentment, which created incentives to prevent such attempts through moral condemnation. The dogmas of ancient religions, such as early Christianity, which condemn the accumulation of wealth and admonish people to devote themselves more to an afterlife, can therefore be interpreted as strategies to reduce socially harmful behaviour in a zero-sum game.

This explanation appears to be largely compatible with Friedrich Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality, according to which many Christian values arose from a psychological inversion fuelled by resentment, which transformed the hardship of not being able to into a virtue of not wanting to (cf. Nietzsche 2018, p. 281). The misery of not being able to achieve significant economic growth thus gave rise to a moral sentiment that downplays the value of the economy and condemns those who try to make economic progress as a form of self-protection. The problem with this sentiment, however, is that it appears to be both an obstacle to achieving growth and inadequate for operating in a non-zero-sum economy.

Accordingly, the phase of significant global growth emanating from Europe, in which we still live today, only began at the beginning of the 19th century, after the Enlightenment and reform movements within Christianity had paved the way for increasing criticism and emancipation from such religiously traditional sentiments (cf. Friedman 2011, p.10).

Regardless of whether this explanation fully captures the genesis of the prosperity- and growth-sceptic intuitions, it seems plausible to assume that these intuitions arose in some form as adaptations to a zero-sum world. Similar to the exponential growth bias discussed in 3.1 or the status quo bias mentioned in 5.3, they presumably represent rudiments from humanity’s no-growth past in our thinking, which often make it difficult for us to adequately understand the phenomenon of economic growth, to assess its normative value and consequently to achieve it. This could also explain the great influence of the stationary state paradigm in philosophy, as elaborated in section 3.2.

One of the implications of the findings of this thesis is therefore that it might be a relevant research question to ask where else in conventional moral thinking or the mainstream of political philosophy similar ideas and ways of thinking can be found that have presumably emerged as adaptations to a no-growth world, but are potentially obstructive to existence in and the creation of growing economies.

7.    Conclusion

Contrary to the notion, popularised by the stationary state paradigm in political philosophy, that economic growth is neither normatively relevant nor desirable, the arguments presented in this thesis suggest that the opposite is the case.

Economic growth has a significant influence on a large number of normatively relevant social conditions and goals. Growth goes hand in hand with increasing and maintaining subjective well-being and objective quality of life. It helps to reduce existential risks in the long term. Above all, however, only growth enables a society to be an economic non-zero-sum game, which has a positive effect on the establishment and stability of inclusive institutions such as democracies and on the spread of prosocial attitudes. A permanent suppression of growth through this close relationship with inclusive institutions would only be possible through measures that are morally reprehensible.

The existence of economic growth in a society is therefore in principle normatively desirable, but this only applies with certain restrictions. For the positive effects of growth to actually unfold, two conditions in particular must be met:

On the one hand, growth must be as inclusive as possible, i.e. it must not only be aggregated, but also take place across society as a whole. Furthermore, it must be of such quality that possible negative externalities do not outweigh the positive effects – something that can be ensured through the right regulation and social policy.

In practice, however, this is made more difficult by the fact that conventional operationalisations of economic growth, such as GDP per capita, do not reflect its quality and degree of inclusion, so that a more differentiated analysis of these aspects is necessary. Furthermore, vicious circles can occur in which the absence of growth also undermines the creation of growth-promoting conditions and equalising measures.

The fact that economic growth is so often underestimated and neglected as a factor in normative considerations in political philosophy can probably be attributed to two main reasons: Firstly, many of the widely held premises about the nature of economic growth are based on outdated theories that can be categorised as false from the perspective of more recent findings in economics and endogenous growth theory. Furthermore, the majority of human history was characterised by the absence of significant economic growth, so that traditional intuitions and anachronistic thought patterns often make it difficult to adequately understand it and classify its normative relevance.

To summarise, it can be argued that economic growth should be given greater attention in political philosophy than has been the case to date. Economic growth is not, as is often assumed, harmful or irrelevant to the morality of a society. Above all, as long as growth is inclusive and qualitatively sustainable, it has a number of normatively desirable effects that can hardly or not at all be achieved otherwise, and thus has great normative significance. It thus forms one of the indispensable foundations for the emergence and preservation of democracy and prosociality.


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