“Growth” is not necessarily, or even likely, a source of human happiness. Why is it the overarching and one univocally agreed-upon goal of our modern politics? ~Prof. Patrick Deneen

John Schwenkler was remarking not long ago on the unnatural and bizarre quality of referring to the “growth” of abstract entities, and cited objections to describing the “growth” of the economy. This language and the policies this language is used to defend have something important in common, which is the obscuring of costs and losses. As Prof. Deneen says elsewhere in the same post:

The basic circularity implicit in our current moment reveals a deeply troubling truth about our current economic condition: growth is fundamentally generated by deepening and extending bad behaviors (such as indebtedness), the costs of which are to be obscured by economic growth. However, because those costs keep rising – in every sense, not only monetary, but socially, environmentally, generationally – the need for higher economic and social costs to spur greater growth, and greater growth to service and obfuscate the costs, increases exponentially. In recent years the frenetic logic of this basic truth has led us to a condition like a runner on an out-of-control treadmill, running madly to get ahead, at best standing still, at worst about to be thrown off the machine.

The immediate goal seems to be to mask the costs of private indebtedness, which are expressed in the collapse in (artificially-inflated!) consumer demand, with massive public borrowing from the next generation. On the plus side, private indebtedness has risen to such levels that we cannot now follow the ruinous South Korean model of “recovery” through still more debt-financed private spending (not that we should want to follow that model), but the South Korean example should serve as a warning about the basic unsustainability of this obsession with “growth” that is financed with easy money and cheap credit. Eventually, there comes a time when everything that has already been bought and consumed has to be paid for, and the reckoning cannot be perpetually deferred into the future. If today’s “growth” has been purchased at the expense of future prosperity, there has not been any real growth, but merely indulgence facilitated by theft committed against those not yet born. Other costs that “growth” and faith in the power of technology to facilitate ever-more “growth” obscure are the costs to the natural world and, of course, to the social and political order.

As Prof. Deneen discusses later in the post, there is a proper fulfillment to natural growth beyond which growing is supposed to cease. Indeed, growth beyond that point is typically unhealthy and takes the form of cancers. This is the basic distinction that I believe John Lukacs also made long ago between “growth” and prosperity. On the other hand, perhaps a way of life geared towards perpetual and ceaseless growth is better understood as one that is continually regressing towards childhood and ultimately infancy, which might explain the prevalence of the optimistic, child-like belief that we can have whatever we want and there will always be someone or something to solve our problems. Maturity implies being fully grown and being ready to take on responsibilities, which suggests that the more we cultivate the idea of constant and endless “growth” as the proper goal the more irresponsible and dependent we will become.