Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The morality of growth

Will Wilkinson asked a couple weeks ago for anyone to prove that economic growth is politically desirable :

Are you aware of any works in moral or political philosophy (or normative political theory) that argue that maintaining a relatively high rate of economic growth is morally mandatory for a good government (...).

I am not looking for an economist who argues in passing that (sufficiently equitably distributed) growth is good because growth=higher incomes=concumption of more preferred bundles of goods=good. (...) I am unwilling to believe that there could be thousands upon thousands of pages on liberty, equality, and even stability, but next to nothing on growth as a cardinal social and political value.

To understand such a normative issue, we first need to understand what a political value is. Values are the moral equivalent of objective human needs. We need food to survive, therefore nutrition is a value. We need protection from the elements, therefore shelter is a value.

There are four categories of values, arranged in a hierarchy :
* Physical values - Necessary for our survival, therefore necessarily at the foundation of our hierarchy. Examples : food, shelter, health, mobility.
* Mental values - Necessary for the sound operation of our mind, and therefore the determination of correct action. Examples : rationality, purpose, education.
* Social values - Necessary to reap the rewards of living in society. Categories of these include economic exchange, visibility, and communication.
* Political values - Necessary for a sound framework to the fulfillment of the other categories of values. Examples : freedom, limited law, rule of law.
(from Logical Structure of Objectivism, chapter 3)

We all configure our values differently depending on our situation. A starving man in the desert would value nutrition above all else, while a working man who has no problem getting his three meals a day would not put such an importance on it.

This being said, it is the last category of values which interest us. Coercion makes us unable to act to fulfill our values, and thus political values exist because we need to be able to live without coercion. Given this need, we should seek modes of organization which eschew coercion. We also need a mode of organization which sets clear rules, making the possible effects of our actions clear and permitting the use of causality by the individual.

Given all this, I'm afraid that I must refuse to comply with Wilkinson's request that "consumption of more preferred bundles of goods" not be invoked, because they are extremely relevant to this question. But to be more precise, I should say "execution of more preferred sets of actions", putting said consumption as part of that set of actions. Fulfilling a value does not solely involve consumption of goods (the fulfillment of friendship, social visibility or intimate relationships comes to mind).

This bundle of goods and this set of actions correspond to the configuration of the individual's values, which is to say his value system. And individuals, in any given society, have wildly different value systems. Therefore, the expansion of possibilities, both in terms of goods and actions, makes possible the fulfillment of a greater number of values for a greater number of people.

This principle explains why growth is moral.

It also explains why market anarchy is the best political system. In a market anarchy, individuals are free to choose the laws they support personally, or the kind of protection they want. Thus market anarchy is nothing but an expansion of the principle of the "fulfillment of a greater number of values for a greater number of people" applied to the political realm. No other system offers this level of freedom, and can be seen as ultimately being the enemy of individual value expression.

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