Economic Growth… and What Comes After

I appreciate Agnes’s question on what I have termed “phase changes.” If you see the history of our world as I do in terms of these phase changes, it is interesting to note that the previous phase’s processes don’t stop mattering just because you’ve reached a new phase. When the human economy reached an industrial phase, agriculture did not stop mattering. It changed, got more efficient, and took up a smaller portion of the labor supply, but we produce more food now through agriculture to feed a larger human population than ever before. In the same way, the proliferation of life that came out of the Cambrian explosion hasn’t stopped, nor would we want it to. Evolution still happens, and that’s likely for the best as organisms can adapt to changing conditions. And the solar influx that provided the negative local entropy to allow life to originate on our planet in the first place thankfully continues—I think we can agree that is a good thing.

I suspect future phases will behave similarly. They will be bigger, in a sense. But it is an accretion of the underpinning process of each phase that drives the whole thing forward. For example, if the next phase is the dissemination of human civilization throughout the cosmos, it will likely be aided by economic growth that provides and continually improves the technological capability for humans to survive in the harsh environments. I do want to see what comes next, but if the pattern holds, economic growth will still matter. In the meantime, growth is still the most beautiful thing going in virtue of it driving us to the next phase. If there is a next phase where economic growth is no longer the biggest, most beautiful phenomenon on which to remark, well that would be something to see, and it is in that sense alone that, yes, I impatiently want the era of economic growth to come to an end.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.