The Real Cancer Is Historical and Economic Ignorance

by Don Boudreaux on July 28, 2016

in Growth, Standard of Living

Here’s a comment, in full, from one “Bob” on this Marginal Revolution post by Tyler Cowen on Tyler’s receipt of Joel Mokyr’s new book, A Culture of Growth:

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

Bob likely believes that, with this single pointed sentence, he makes a profound point – a point that causes all but the most philistine of readers to pause and say “Omigosh!  Bob is so insightful!  Economic growth is cancerous.  We mindlessly bow to it – accept it – demand it even! – unaware that it will eventually destroy us.”

In fact, Bob is painfully sophomoric.  The reason is that the case for economic growth is not and never has been “growth for the sake of growth” (although misinformed best-selling authors such as Douglas Rushkoff continue to insist otherwise).  Instead, the case for growth is this: growth for the sake of human betterment.  The case for economic growth is founded on the fact that it improves human lives, and especially the lives of those who are currently worse off.

Economic growth extends life-expectancies; the wealthier we are the less likely are parents to suffer the tragedy of having to bury children – the wealthier we are the less likely are children to grow up with no memories of their fathers or of their mothers or of some of their siblings.  Economic growth protects ordinary people from the real risks of starvation that haunted nearly everyone until the modern age.

Economic growth supplies the material wherewithal for ordinary people to have the leisure to become literate, to read for pleasure, to travel for enlightenment and amusement, and to retire in the autumn of life with the expectation of having upwards of two decades of good health remaining to enjoy with grandchildren, neighbors, and friends.  Economic growth supplies ordinary people with the means of traversing the globe comfortably and safely and at speeds and at such ease that would cause a 17th-century pasha to fall to his knees, quivering, in astonishment.  Economic growth gives us antibiotics, antidepressants, statins, anesthesia, vision correction, and that miracle drug called aspirin.

Economic growth allows us to drink water without fear of dying from dysentery.

Economic growth gives us toothbrushes and dental floss and antibacterial soap.

Economic growth gives ordinary people that miracle of fast, individualized surface transportation called the automobile.

Economic growth puts over the heads of even poor people solid roofs and puts beneath their feet solid floors.  Economic growth makes the living environment of every ordinary human today cleaner, safer, and more comfortable than was the living environment of even the most powerful and wealthy monarch before 1700.

Economic growth gives us washing machines.

Economic growth is not merely about the accumulation of material trinkets and baubles.  It is, far more, about the possibility of living longer, healthier, better lives – lives more varied in experiences, more rich in enjoyments, more immersed in learning, and more free of worries and tragedies.

And economic growth is about giving the “Bob”s of the world the leisure, literacy, and computer capacity to make on blogs housed in cyberspace sophomoric comments about the alleged dangers of economic growth.


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