My friend PEG (Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry) says that most of our current political and social debates in America aren’t about what they seem to be about: instead, they’re about economic growth. Now, as it happens, I don’t think PEG proves that point: it seems to me that he ends up arguing that in conditions of economic growth many heated debates would become less heated or would disappear altogether. Which doesn’t at all mean that the arguments are about growth, but rather that the wealthier people get and the more economic and social opportunities they have the less likely they are to complain.
On any event, my primary interest is in what follows from PEG’s reading. If economic growth can reduce social tension and create greater personal satisfaction for many more people — what then? The obvious answer would seem to be that we should promote policies that generate and sustain growth, and then allow that growth to do its soothing work.
Except that we don’t know what policies generate and sustain growth. At best we might be able to discover and eliminate some policies that inhibit growth, but economic flourishing in any given society depends on a great many unpredictable and uncontrollable factors. Often the stars just have to align.
Moreover, there is a great deal of debate among economists about whether ongoing economic growth is permanently possible, or whether, by contrast, periods of waxing and waning must be expected. As James Poulos has recently argued, in these matters as in so many others we are susceptible to the illusion that proper planning can both eliminate failure and ensure success, which means that if growth doesn’t happen someone has screwed up and is to be blamed. That is wrong, but more than that, as James argues, it’s a mode of thought that misses a vital truth: The planned life is not worth living.
So my response to PEG’s post is this: we need to strive to articulate and commend visions of the good life, of human flourishing, that do not depend on economic growth. Then, if the growth comes, well and good — what a delightful bonus. St. Augustine wrote of transcendent mystical experiences that he was grateful when they came to him but he did not expect them and was prepared to live without them. I think that should be our attitude towards economic growth.