The Ethical Economist

GROWTH MAY BE EVERYTHING, BUT IT'S NOT THE ONLY THING

Economists have long been a natural constituency in favor of growth. Since even the richest country has limited resources, the central economic problem is choice: Shall we fund tax cuts for the rich or investment in infrastructure and research and development, war in Iraq or assistance for the poor in developing countries and our own? By providing more total resources, growth should, in theory, make these choices less painful.

The United States, however, has powerfully demonstrated that while growth increases supply, it also raises aspirations. Choices that rich countries have to make thus seem to be no easier than those confronting poor countries, even though the tradeoffs are more heart-wrenching in the case of the poor. Brazil, for example, must choose whether to use its limited health budget to pay full-market price for AIDS drugs; some AIDS victims may live as a result, but people in need of other health care will die, because money that could have been spent on their needs is simply not there. More growth-provided resources, in this instance, mean the difference between life and death.

Still, growth has had its critics. There is a well-developed populist antigrowth literature concerned with, among other things, the impact of growth on the environment and on poverty. In this major work, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin Friedman takes on such critics, positing that growth has not only obvious economic benefits, but moral benefits as well. He argues that it has the potential to improve the environment, reduce poverty, promote democracy, and make for a more open and tolerant society. But this is not to say that Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is simply a naive cheerleader for the market economy. His message is nuanced (though not, in some respects, as nuanced as I would have liked), and he realizes that growth has not always brought the promised benefits. The market economy does not automatically guarantee growth, social justice, or even economic efficiency; achieving those ends requires that government play an important role.

LET IT GROW

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