Is a Growth Economy Inherently Good?

In his book, The Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell claims that “capitalism is an economy of desire that works against the created end of humanity, which is to share in the communion of the divine life of the blessed Trinity” (p. 93).

He fleshes this out by analyzing capitalism’s implicit theology, especially its anthropology.

Daniel Bell, The Economy of Desire

One feature that Bell explicates is something that’s bothered me over the last few years—that is, the unquestioned goodness of “economic growth.”  It’s a worthwhile task to question this assumption.  Is it rhetoric that masks destructive dynamics?  The unquestioned goodness of growth also infects and affects our imaginations regarding other aspects of life (i.e., relationships, church life, the upwardly-mobile trajectories of our lives, etc.).

Notions that are so widely accepted that their goodness becomes given can easily become enslaving and oppressive ideologies.  Bell’s analysis is at least worth considering.

The interest-maximizing character of the capitalist individual is closely related to the way in which human desire is construed by capitalism as fundamentally insatiable . . .  The problem that drives the entire economic enterprise is rooted in the unquenchable, infinite nature of human desire.  Thus Adam Smith speaks of that desire in humanity “which cannot be satisfied, but seem[s] to be altogether endless.”  Homo economicus is a being of unlimited wants.  Because human desires are unlimited, economics, as the allocation of limited material resources, is necessary.

In this regard, consider how the health of the economy is measured.  When we listen to the daily business news, what are we told is a sign of economic health?  Growth.  When retail companies evaluate the health of a particular store, what do they look at?  Growth over the same period as last year.  When a labor forces is evaluated, what is the standard?  Increased productivity.  When politicians want us to vote for them, what do they ask us?  Are we better off (i.e., do we have more) now than before?  Growth is the benchmark of well-being, the measure of good and evil.  More is better.  Consider, as well, the notion of “opportunity cost.”  In teaching us to weigh not just the out-of-pocket cost of a choice but to consider as well the “cost” of all the opportunities foregone by making that particular choice, we are in effect being taught that we rightly desire everything.  After all, one must desire everything for not choosing something to be regarded as a cost.

All of this is to say that capitalism deforms and corrupts human desire into an insatiable drive for more that today is celebrated as the aggressive, creative, entrepreneurial energy that distinguishes homo economicus (pp. 102-103).

Is there anything wrong with such a vision?  Does it run against the grain of a Scriptural conception of desire or of what constitutes “well-being?”

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15 responses to “Is a Growth Economy Inherently Good?

  • Michael

    No. It’s not inherently good. It’s routinely and wrongly mixed up with a desire to be excellent and meet one’s potential. I say wrongly because I think there is scriptural basis for people having inherent purpose and utility. Contrast that to, I think, there being no scriptural basis for capitalism or growth systems being the initial state of God’s creation or economy or anything he’s ever called “good.”

    Things that are inherently good are in the process of being redeemed. I don’t see evidence that God is redeeming capitalism in and of itself, although I see plenty of evidence of God working within (or in spite of) capitalism and other economic systems to redeem what is foundational and was created and called “good.” So I view that as my shared goal as his child, to help redeem his creation regardless of whatever system I exist within (knowing fully, also, that my cultural system might be totally wreaking havoc on my effectiveness!).

    ::M::

    • timgombis

      I think that’s a big part of the discussion–that certain cultural dynamics (i.e., a growing economy) MAY be good, but are very likely mixed goods. There are other dynamics present, because of the insidiousness of Sin and Flesh and because of endlessly idolatrous hearts, that corrupt anything and everything good. So, even growing economies may have dark undersides and may even be based on thoroughgoing evil. There are just so many variables and contingencies.

  • Patrick

    What alternative is there for a secular society?

    • timgombis

      I’m not sure yet about alternatives. But I’m just wondering whether a “growth economy” has other potential meanings and whether Christians ought to be skeptical about the “good news” of a growing economy. Might other factors be that people cannot be content, that idolatrous desires are out of control, that people can’t stop making reckless choices, that even though closets are full, folks can’t stop making senseless purchases? I’m just wondering about alternative interpretations of economic indicators.

  • Brian Scarborough

    In general, growth is inherently good in an economy. We find this principle throughout the Bible. Blessing is associated with growth and curse with decline. Is it always good for us morally? Not when we get caught up in it.
    Remember this, though: economic decline always hurts the poor the most. They are blessed by growth. Think about our country where poor people are fat. It is because we have a tremendously productive society.

    • timgombis

      Brian, your final comment is beyond ignorant.

    • timgombis

      Yes, God does promise material goods for Israel’s faithfulness and the opposite for their unfaithfulness. But the equation isn’t so simple. What about empires in Daniel and Revelation that are beasts, whose unquestioned wealth is the result of the plunder of the earth and an out of control lust for more and more? That isn’t God’s blessing and a growth economy in those instances is evil.

      And what about the prophets’ critique of Israel and Judah, where people have grown rich at the expense of the poor? The housing industry was booming, but Isaiah saw only injustice and the impending judgment of God.

      • Brian Scarborough

        In ancient Israel, land was the means of production. When you steal the means of production, those you steal from are oppressed. You have not made the case that the modern capitalist economy does this. Wealth must be produced. The wealthy are better at producing it.
        Babylon – what does “plunder of the earth mean”. An economist would not recognize it. It’s pure nonsense.
        I could go on and on, but will refrain. You call my comments “ignorant”. What you are ignorant of is the laws of economics. I have had papers read by former members of the Federal Reserve. What are your qualifications to speak on matters economic?
        Your thinking is clearly marxist on both economic and social matters. Perhaps you should stick to things you know instead of shooting off your mouth.

      • timgombis

        I found your comment that we clearly have a productive society based on poor people being fat extremely simplistic and — I don’t know how else to say it — ignorant.

        Further, the connection in Scripture between the wealth of nations and God’s blessing is more complex than you indicated. I’m not sure what to do with the fact that an economist wouldn’t recognize that.

        I’m thinking through Bell’s presentation and asking questions based on it. I find it helpful to question prevailing notions up and running in our culture in an effort to think more faithfully as a Christian person. He does indeed use Marxist critiques of capitalism to clear some space for a Christian theological reflection on economic matters and I find it pretty interesting. I may not find it finally convincing, but I think it’s worth asking the questions along with him.

        I don’t think this exercise should threaten you, though you clearly aren’t enjoying it!!

  • Adam O

    Certainly a growing economy does NOT always help the poor. Perhaps there has been a recent trend (last couple centuries) toward constructing societal safety nets that are possible because of a stable/healthy/growing economy. But historically, the wealthy have grown their economy at the expense of the poor and to their detriment. Indeed, consider the cost in virtually slave labor world wide to make our Walmarts, Starbucks, Apples “grow.”

  • Greek UnOrthodox

    not exactly to your point, but I’ve been thinking a lot about our Capitalistic society and thinking through why I think it is unbiblical. I also compare it to its opposite…Communism. I see two factors at work in both – Freedom and Accumulation. Capitalism suggests Freedom for Obtain for yourself, Communism suggests Forced Sharing with others. Christianity suggests Freedom FROM what we obtain and Freedom TO share with others. It goes in a completely different direction.

    When I discuss the problems of Capitalism with my more conservative friends, they always end up calling me a socialist or communist, etc. But this misses the point…Both systems ignore the directive the Bible is declaring…Freedom to Give.

    • timgombis

      Those are key aspects of Bell’s discussion. He talks about the extreme individualism of capitalism and its negative freedom–freedom from coercion and any other constraints. A Christian conception of the individual, however, leads to a freedom FOR communion with God and others, along with a vital connection to community and others. As you say, the ideological visions run in opposite directions.

      I’m not sure about the relation of communism and capitalism, however. I know our ideological climate has set them against each other, but I’m not sure how to situate them. Bell argues that even communism is in service to global capitalism, which I found interesting. And I’m not suggesting that communism is any better or is a preferred alternative.

      And I’ve certainly discovered that it’s pretty tough to raise the questions even in Christian circles. It’s all too easy for any and every social/political/economic conception to sprinkle in some Bible verses and pass itself off as “biblical.” That doesn’t mean it should escape critical scrutiny in light of Scripture.

  • michaelbare

    I think one of the richest and wisest persons in the history of the world would have something to say about the idea that the wealthy produce wealth solely because “they’re better at it”:

    Ecclesiastes 9:11:

    “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise, or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

    The idea that wealth is produced by people who are better at it, even outside of the opinion of Solomon, is silly because it suffers from a fallacy of circular self-referentialism. And I won’t even touch the idea that the poor are fat because our society is successful and productive, for the same reasons that I think it’s ludicrous to say wealth is created without any sort of oppression. There can be ZERO data (or papers drafted and presented to any former, present, future, cartoon, claymation, ghost, reincarnated, Chia-pet, avatar, vampire, or werewolf Federal reserve member/s) that supports the idea that any growth economy (or any economy over the history of time, for that matter, regardless of structure) did so without any sort of aggression and oppression of others (people, nations, and resources alike). If an economy included people, it grew on the backs of other people. There are no exceptions, in my humble, paper-less, mouth-shooty opinion.

    A question I would ask of Bell at this point is (and maybe Tim can answer from what is in the book): As Christians, is it our charge to try and take A (which we’ll call “whatever is determined to be the heavenly economy”) and implement it in the midst of whatever our B (which we’ll call “whatever the prevailing economy of our day is”) is in our own interactions with others as often as possible? OR would the author make a case that there should be an even greater organizational attempt on the part of believers to in some way replace on national levels the B with the A?

    This is always the bigger question to me in this type of discussion, because it involves the application of convictions and realities. It’s one thing to say we should try to go about living a particular way ourselves, but how far do we go in asking others to live it too? Specifically, others who don’t subject themselves to the same kingdom dynamic?

    Maybe that’s not the point in this book. Maybe Bell’s audience is simply Christians who he sees as engaging economically in too unexamined a fashion, and only intends to get them to think critically about what they’re engaged in. But still, the fact remains, if he’s successful and achieves reader engagement, then what? What would he have them do?

    ::M::

    • timgombis

      That is indeed the question, M., and I’m very interested to see where Bell goes with that. It seems to me a salutary exercise to lift up the hood on the ideological roots of capitalism (and any other large-scale political/social arrangement) along with its attendant practices and dynamics. That’s where I’m at so far in his presentation.

      Beyond that, however, I have the same questions–what now? If there’s this insidious system, what behaviors does he commend?

      I’ll get there soon, hopefully (if I can dig out from beneath the piles of grading that don’t seem to be diminishing, mysteriously!)!

  • Greek UnOrthodox

    For some reason I can’t reply to your earlier comment of mine, but this is a follow up:

    Just to your last paragraph, this quote I came across struck a chord: “God must tear from us what we love wrongly, unreasonably or excessively, that which hinders his love. In so doing, he causes us to cry out like a child from whom one takes the knife with which it would maim or kill itself. We cry loudly in our despair and murmur against God, as the petulant babe against its mother; but he lets us cry and saves us nevertheless!” (Francis Fenelon, “The Royal Way of the Cross”)

    I get the sense that the pushback you mention, from other capitalistically entrenched Christians, might fall under the subject of this quote.

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