Growth Fetish and the stationary state….
Writing in 1865, John Stuart Mill devoted sustained attention to a concept that would be unthinkable to today’s economists and policy makers – the idea of the stationary state. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that any serious discussion of the relationship between economic growth and human wellbeing leads ineluctably to a consideration of the stationary state. Mill asked, ‘Towards what ultimate point is society tending by its industrial progress? When the progress ceases, in what condition are we to expect that it will leave mankind?’
One searches in vain for any mention of these questions in modern economics texts. In a passage whose sentiments have a surprisingly modern ring, Mill declared that he had no aversion to a stationary state of capital and wealth:
“I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress . . . the best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.
….Yearning for Balance, a report produced for the Merck Family Fund in 1995 demonstrates that, in the nation that epitomises growth fetishism, the growth project has for the most part failed to improve people’s lives. It is not simply that other trends in society, occurring in parallel with rising incomes, have offset the benefits of wealth: the process of economic growth itself has produced a seriously sick society.
We are not the US and we need growth, but it is important we don’t develop that same sort and degree of fetish. Unfortunately, we are choosing (or have been involuntarily coerced into choosing) inappropriate growth engines, and if this continues, it is inevitable that we will suffer the same sicknesses they do now. The process of economic growth matters a great, great deal. The neoliberal process, Clive Hamilton says (and I tend to agree), is destructive. And unfortunately, too few realize that.