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Simply Madness
Simplicity won’t solve America’s economic problems; growth will.


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Jonah Goldberg

‘Live simply so that others may simply live,” Gandhi famously proclaimed.

Some vegetarians see their diet as the truest expression of Gandhi’s advice. But these days, the slogan has been embraced most passionately by those who wish to say goodbye to economic growth.

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That’s not an exaggeration. The so-called “steady-state economy” movement holds that “we will have to get beyond growth as a society in order to realize a sustainable future.”

That’s from the website steadystaterevolution.org. Its logo features a typical jagged trend line (representing the traditional ups and downs of economic progress) that suddenly flatlines at a high level, sort of like what an EKG would look like if you had a heart attack and died while jogging (death, after all, is the steadiest of states).

The idea behind the steady-state economy should be familiar to anyone who’s heard the lament that capitalism is bad for the environment because it rapaciously consumes resources faster than they can be replaced.

It’s an ancient idea, really, a kind of millenarian paranoia that keeps getting gussied up to fit the latest headlines. My favorite example is the 1968 book The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” prophesized Ehrlich. “In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

It was a “certainty” that even in America, famine would claim millions. Ehrlich desperately claims that his predictions were mostly right and that hundreds of millions of people did indeed die of hunger over the ensuing decades. That’s not exactly true. Global population has doubled, and the amount of food available for humanity has grown as well.

But, yes, people have died of hunger since 1968. Why? It wasn’t because markets failed or resources ran out. It was because government planners failed. That’s why countries such as India and China have introduced markets: Their central planning was killing their own people.

A few years ago, a special issue of New Scientist magazine was dedicated to the steady-state economy. In it, Herman Daly, a leading guru behind the movement, explained that in his new ideal “sustainable economy,” “scientists set the rules.”

Translation: If the ecologists don’t like an idea, that idea is out. Daly’s hardly the only person out there imagining a kind of Plato’s Republic where the philosopher-kings are replaced with environmental and climate scientists. The 2007 book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy makes a similar argument, though its enemy is liberal democracy rather than economic growth.

Either way, the problem becomes clear: When people start talking about capping, halting, or managing economic growth, what they really mean is capping, halting, and managing freedom. Hence Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and avowed envier of China’s authoritarian regime, declares that “The Earth Is Full” and we must therefore embrace a version of the steady-state economy.

Economic growth is an enemy of all central planners for the simple reason that growth jumps the guardrails of The Plan; it changes the aesthetically appealing flat line of the steady state and makes it jagged. Growth creates new products, destroys old ones, and allows people to behave in ways that render PowerPoint projections dismayingly obsolete. Worse, it takes power from the planners.

In order to herd people back onto the official path, planners must tell them that what exists outside the guardrails is too terrifying to contemplate. “Beyond here there be monsters” is the posted sign at every guardrail.

For the record, America has more forests than it did a century ago. Our air, water, and food are cleaner than at any time since industrialization. That is not because we lived simply, but because we pursued economic growth and accumulated the wealth and expertise to mend our problems. Over the long run, the same pattern holds true for every country that embraces economic growth.

That’s why climate change is such a useful bogeyman: It is non-falsifiable, at least in our lifetimes. The “scientists set the rules,” and there’s no room for appeal. And — surprise! — in order to avoid catastrophe, the same old adages apply.

“Live simply so that others may simply live” has never made any sense save in this light. To live simply means to live predictably — predictably poor (or to not live at all). When India came closest to following Gandhi’s mantra, untold millions lived and died — albeit “simply”! — in abject poverty.

What America needs desperately today is massive economic growth. That’s what will pay off our debt, sustain our entitlements, and continue to improve the environment. Almost as important, it will annoy all the right people.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. (C) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.



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