Deconstructing the “De-growth” Movement

Tom Rogan in the Washington Examiner wrote a very interesting piece on the new expression of an old idea–”degrowth.”  (see http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/the-far-left-has-an-idiotic-new-craze-reduce-economic-growth/article/2631274).  He leads with these words: “Even the Soviets sought to maximize economic output. But today’s contemporary far-left are far bolder: they believe that economics itself is wrong.”  He writes further, “From their perspective, government shouldn’t simply control the means of economic production (socialism), it should actively work to reduce gross domestic product (GDP).”  Yes, you read that correctly.  The far-left has now come to the conclusion that economic growth is bad in itself and that nations ought to reduce GDP (the standard measure of economic growth).  This view comes from some at the London School of Economics and others.  It bears some resemblance to earlier movements like the Luddites of the early nineteenth century, but the latter’s resistance was to technology, not to growth per se.  

And how do we “achieve” this marvelous goal?  Jason Hickel of the London Schools proposes a “simple” way: curb advertisement and impose a carbon tax, presumably a very large tax.  But then Hickel adds, “degrowth is not the same as “austerity” (reduced government spending). Instead, he says, “’the goal is to increase human well-being and happiness while reducing our economic footprint’.”  So nations are to reduce real growth and at the same time not decrease government spending.  I wonder where he thinks all that tax revenue to support the state will come from?  No growth means no increasing taxable income or profit or sales. That means less tax revenue.  But government can’t grow without revenue.  And all those people who will no longer be employed and who will need government services (ostensibly at any rate) will not be able to be served as the left believes they should.

Apart from that problem, people in general will be reduced to lower standards of living, even deprived of the freedom and opportunity to make themselves better-off.  Hickel adds in this respect that he would implement a “basic income” and a “shorter work week.”  I am miffed that this person would be associated with an institution with the word “Economics” in its title.  Since tax revenues will be lower, the basic income must be lower, even very low.  Moreover, if the work week is restricted, individuals can’t earn extra income.  In an article in the Guardian, Hickel wrote that “industrialized countries will have no choice but to downscale their economic activity by 4-6 percent per year. And poor countries are going to have to follow suit after 2025, downscaling by about 3 percent per year.”  What will happen in poor nations?  I would predict without much fear of contradiction that many people would simply starve.  Unemployment would certainly be massive.  We would all live at a very basic level, if that.  Maybe Hickel wants a reduction in population, in that very pernicious way (I am only half facetious–some on the left have proposed the necessity of population reduction, recently and in the past.  

Now let me try to bring biblical principles to bear on this issue.  To be sure, Christians are no fans of a greedy, consumption-obsessed society.  People in such a society betray a basic idolatry of material well-being, Christians and non-Christians.  But the solution to idolatry is not to create conditions for the deaths and abject poverty of many just to “solve” a problem of the wrong object of worship.  The solution is better teaching, in our churches and other institutions.  We as believers should in no way support a reduction in well-being of individuals or entire nations.  Temporal though it may be, we support the “welfare of the city” that consists of both believers and non-believers.  This the “degrowth” idea has no place in Christian thought, let alone in rational economic thought, even apart from Christian foundations.

11 thoughts on “Deconstructing the “De-growth” Movement”

  1. Alright so first, let me say that when I read this post I thought “he has to be misrepresenting the views of this economist and clearly this is a fringe belief with maybe only one or two adherents” I was really wrong on the second point. Mostly wrong on the first.

    Apparently these people do have good goals, you can read up on the Wikipedia article, they don’t actually want to limit GDP for the sake of limiting GDP. They want to avoid depletion of resources, including worker’s time.

    So you obviously disagree with this view point. Do you think it’s fair to label this as an insane, completely misguided, or evil point of view? I lean towards the second one.

  2. I think it is ridiculous to even consider that point of view for more than a moment. It seems to me to simply be higher education’s attempt at grasping for something new, however absurd.

    I agree that it has no place in a christian’s worldview or in a reasonable economist’s.

  3. Do you, Dr. Clauson, believe that a productive discussion can be had with someone subscribing to this view point? They oppose the goal of universal opulence, which is the foundation of nearly every other economic system. Even Marx wanted to achieve growth. How do you begin a dialog with someone like this?

  4. Thank you for your biblical perspective on “de-growth.” While we do live in a materialistic nation, creating equality is not the solution to the idolatrous heart.

  5. I feel like Christians struggle with economic questions because of some passed-down dislike for business and economics because of greed, but I feel like there are many people in society who have negative opinions of economic growth. In society, many feel that themselves or others have been cheated because of the economy, therefore, by money. While I am a Christian, I believe that many Christians look at economics and business with a bad taste in their mouth. How is the Christian community supposed to help the impoverished communities out of their poverty if the Christians don’t pay attention to the economy and business?

  6. If this concept were to be put into practice, production would slow, as would the standard of living, as the two are directly related. We will never be able to outrun our sinful nature, so any amount of degrowth cannot change our hearts. An inward change imposed by oneself is the only way to fix the problem.

  7. I had never heard that many from the left want to stop economic growth. It’s crazy yet totally believable. I agree that, as Christians, we should work to better teach people how to help the economy without making material objects our idols of worship.

  8. Hello everyone,
    I just want to point out a few conclusions to which Marc Clauson imho jumped prematurely. I will preface this by admitting that I am pro Degrowth.

    He writes “No growth means no increasing taxable income or profit or sales.” That is not necessarily true. In a world where “Eight men own more than 3.6 billion people do” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/16/eight-people-earn-more-billion-economics-broken) to me the obvious solution is redistribution by taxation. So – yes, taxation of the rich (and environmental taxes) should finance government spending and things like a basic income.

    He also writes ” I would predict without much fear of contradiction that many people would simply starve. Unemployment would certainly be massive. We would all live at a very basic level, if that.” Again, I believe Marc Clauson neglects the fact that it is not about business-as-usual but with lower GDP but about establishing a more just and more equal world (in terms of material wealth). That might mean a lower level of material wealth for some, but also fewer working hours, less stress, noise, traffic..

    Looking forward to a fruitful discussion!

    1. To Kai:
      Sorry, but a lot of error there. Paragraph by paragraph, first, the comment that “Eight men own more than 3.6 billion…” From an economic standpoint that is not relevant. If the 3.6 billion are enjoying a relatively good life (measured by income as well as “things” as well as “soulish” satisfaction), the eight men make no difference. In fact, they might well be providing jobs and other amenities to those people. If you try to bring them down to the level of everyone else (equalize outcomes) several bad things result: (1) incentives to be productive decline (2) the resources to provide productive work decline; (3) with 1 and 2, tax revenue declines for real public services. Those are just a few.

      Second, the vision to “establish a more just and equal world.” That sounds (this is) a form of socialism–certainly that has been the goal of that ideology. When has any socialist regime made life better for its citizens–everyone’s well-being has declined (Venezuela???). Equality is not the goal, well being is. And socialist-type ideas do not achieve that goal. The term “justice” as you use it is really “social justice,” which is just another way to talk about redistribution of resources (income, etc.) from some to others. Again it is rooted in the idea of equality as the prime goal. And that idea again has never achieved what it might like to–assuming well-being has been the goal.

      The goal of a pro-growth attitude is precisely to make all, those 3.6 billion people better off- something we have been doing now for just about 200 years, just about the same time the idea of markets as the “better way”began to take root.

      1. To Marc:
        Dear Marc, thanks for the input. I think our differences come down to a few basic assumptions about humans. Such as: I do not believe that money or material welfare is the only possible motivation to be productive, I am not even sure that it is a very good one. I also believe that it is possible for people to manage a common resource, such as a company, factory…in other words – to own the means of production collectively (so there is no need for the rich person to provide them). There are examples of this out there though I am not sure how common it is in Northern America. Finally, there is research out there that – a certain level of material welfare provided – equality is more important to peoples happiness than their total level of income.

        As for your thoughts on socialism – first of, I did not argue for a socialist state, but for the redistribution of wealth. Secondly, I might argue that the pro-growth attitude and markets have failed as well – you are right, the tragedy is not that 8 people are extremely rich, it is that, for example, in the same world, one in nine people are suffering from chronic undernourishment (http://www.worldhunger.org/2015-world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/).

        I think what this argument might come down to is the question whether the growth-driven market economy is improving peoples lives (and is the only way to do so) or creating ecological, social, democratic and political crises. As it stands, I guess you believe the former, while I believe the latter to be true.

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