Daniel Ben-Ami, a London-based journalist, has covered economics and finance for two decades, contributing to such publications as The Guardian, The Independent, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, and sp!ked. His new book, Ferraris for All (Policy Press), bills itself as “a defense of economic progress.” In it Ben-Ami makes the case that “contrary to the spirit of the times, more really is more, and less is less,” and he defends growth against the charges that it causes inequality and decreases happiness and environmental health. Senior Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Ben-Ami by phone in September.
Q: Explain how wanting more stuff isn’t just about the stuff.
A: Clearly a central benefit of economic growth—more stuff—is the benefit to human welfare: greater longevity, lower infant mortality, later onset of chronic disease, higher intelligence, greater height, etc.
At the moment, any discussion of economics and prosperity focuses on consumption, and in particular on individual consumer goods. So when you say that economic output should rise and there should be economic growth, people interpret that to mean simply that we will have more stuff. I don’t think that’s a problem; I think that’s a good thing. But it’s not just a question of having more goods; it’s a question of having goods that we previously didn’t have access to. Back in the 1970s, people didn’t have access to a mobile phone. But through the process of growth and technological development, a lot of people in the world, many people in the Third World, now have access.
In addition to that, you have infrastructural developments. If you have more economic growth, you can afford more schools. I see economic growth as very closely linked to scientific and technological developments, and also as giving us the ability to control and reshape the environment to benefit humanity.
Q: Why aren’t you concerned about inequality?
A: China has grown much more rapidly than the U.S., so you can say that’s a narrowing of inequality. But at the same time, part of that process is for inequalities within China to widen. There is no definitive answer to the question of whether global inequality is widening or narrowing. It depends on what you measure.
What is really important in the inequality debate is not so much the measurement but the redefinition of inequality. Dealing with inequality used to be about improving the material condition of the poorest people, but it’s been completely redefined. Previously you wanted to have material developments in Third World countries so that they became as rich as the rich countries. That was the aspiration. Whereas now it is discussed in therapeutic terms: It’s very much about the self-esteem of ordinary people in the Third World.
Q: The left was once pro-growth, but now people on the left tend to be what you call “growth skeptics.” What happened?
A: Historically, the aim of the left was to bring about social progress and to get rid of capitalism and to have some kind of socialist society. There were huge debates within the left about what constituted socialism, but there was a broad conception that we could have a prosperous, better, more progressive society. The more that project recedes into the distance, the more the left moves toward views typically associated with the conservative right, with Malthus and with the reaction to the Enlightenment. You now have a situation where those people who would think of themselves as radical are typically among the most conservative, anti-growth people. That’s the paradox.
The idea that people in the developing world shouldn’t aspire to have more, that they should basically give up on trying to better themselves, that they should just be happy with the way things are and not try to change things, is a deeply conservative outlook.