The Corner

Live Simply So That Others May Stay Poor

From my column today:

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.

A reader asks, “What about China?” They have centralized planning and they have growth.

Yes, that’s true. And so long as the economy keeps growing, everything will be fine. But every China expert I’ve ever talked to says that China’s growth is also a threat to the long-term stability of the regime, for myriad reasons. But chief among them: prosperous and entrepreneurial middle classes eventually demand rights. 

 

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