Miserable Rich Bastards


Via Arts & Letters Daily comes yet another interesting piece from Sp!ked, a site worth reading on a daily, even hourly basis. This one is by Daniel Ben-Ami and it takes on anti-economic growth fetishists.

Ben-Ami reviews a new book, Growth Fetish, by Australian Clive Hamilton in which Hamilton rails against growth and all the problems it causes–and fails to fix. Writes Ben-Ami,

A more likely cause of unhappiness is the miserabilist character of contemporary debate—a miserabilism that Hamilton is part of. His downbeat view that economic growth is unsustainable and the cause of misery has become something of a consensus today. There is a widespread pessimism towards progress, and a tendency to worry about the downsides of development….

Far from being characterised by a growth fetish, contemporary society is defined by low expectations about what is possible, and anxiety about possible side-effects of progress. Any attempt to strive for a better life is likely to be viewed with scorn and perhaps even presented as dangerous. Yet economic growth is a central part of human progress. The main problem today is that more growth is needed to help the world's population overcome the scourge of scarcity.

Whatever people's subjective sense of wellbeing, there remains a huge amount to be done to raise living standards, even in the more developed countries. For instance, we are constantly being told that there is a demographic problem that means that the elderly cannot expect a reasonable standard of living. But with greater economic growth it will become possible for the elderly and others not able to work to have higher living standards.

In addition to allowing people to have more consumer goods—including the flat-screen televisions that Hamilton likes to sneer at—growth has other potential benefits, such as allowing greater free time. Money might not make you happy, but it can give you the time and means to find out what does.

Ben-Ami's own 2001 book, Cowardly Capitalism, looks damn interesting, too. Read the Amazon page about it here.

NEXT: Serenade

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  1. Well put, Shannon.

    This article oversimplifies the chimera that this “issue” really is. A favorite example of young globetrotting Americans against the march of progress is to bring up Cuba. While crushed by poverty and bankrupt in just about every material sense, the people there seem a lot happier with their everyday lives than any American community within 1000 miles.

    Based on my own experience being raised in the communist bloc, I would argue that the general population is not psychosocially designed to live under conditions of constant growth and material prosperity. Tens of thousands of years of evolution dictate that homo sapiens is wired for maximum self-realization only under conditions of oppression, strife, tribal unity, and abject poverty.

    “Progress” is a blip on the screen.

  2. Material improvements do not lead inevitably to greater happiness for individuals because much of our sense of happiness arises from our relationships to other people.

    For example, the perception of one’s own social status is a powerful predictor of one’s happiness. Technological improvements that raise everyone’s material standard of living does nothing to alter any individuals relative social status. A “poor” person in 2004 lives a materially better life than a “wealthy” person did in 1904. Indeed, they have cheap access to many things, like antibiotics, that even the richest and most powerful of the past did not. Yet, the “poor” person still feels aggrieved because the contemporary “wealthy” person has greater social status.

    No amount of material improvement can rescue us from ourselves.

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