New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
Comment >

Giles Fraser: Probing the virtues of economic growth

ONE thinker about whom it is definitely non-PC to say anything positive is the Revd Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). Countering the then-prevailing view that society was embarked on a journey of continual improvement, Malthus published his notorious An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that growth has a natural limit.

At some point, he insisted, popu­lation growth comes up against the ability of the world to sustain it. At that point, there will be what we might now call an ecological disaster. Malthus spoke in terms of famine and starvation. The reason why it has be­come so tricky to befriend Malthus intellectually is that he goes on to argue that famine is divinely or­dained to teach human beings virtue. It is, indeed, hard to write about all this while so many people are dying in East Africa.

But what Malthus gets right is being suspicious of the idea of continual growth. Such suspicion would be well worth bringing into discussions about our economy. It has become a matter of common sense that the very purpose of an economy is con­tinually to drive up GDP. When an economy fails to grow, as ours is currently failing to grow, we see this as economic failure.

This is partly because the country uses growth as a way of living on tick — that we borrow money now and pay it off in the (always bright) future, when we will have grown and there will be more money about. Capitalism has to keep running ever faster in order just to stay where it is. Malthus would certainly have seen through all this.

The counter-view to mine is pre­sented by the Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, the Team Rector of Marl­borough, in a recent essay for the St Paul’s Institute. He has been explor­ing the roots of the credit crunch (see www.stpaulsinstitute.org.uk ).

On growth, he began where I am, worried about sustainability. But, in the course of conversations with bankers and business people, he has changed his mind, arguing that the economy is potentially unlimited be­cause human creativity is potentially unlimited. “Humans are made in God’s image and to put limits on human creativity is by implication to put limits on God,” as he puts it.

Yet I would argue that the in­carna­tion is precisely an acceptance of limit. We risk justifying greed by suggesting that the things we want are potentially unlimited. The United States may have sorted out its debt crisis for now, but big questions about sustainability and the virtues (or otherwise) of growth are not going to leave us alone.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

Job of the week

Professor of Divinity

London and Home Counties

Gresham CollegeFounded 1597 Gresham Professor of Divinity Gresham College has provided free public lectures for over 400 years in the City of London and now operates worldwide via the internet. Fo...  Read More

Signup for job alerts
Top feature

Finding life over death

Finding life over death

Denise Inge, who died on Easter Day this year, discovered that her home was built over a charnel house. This prompted her to write a book exploring the challenge of living well in the face of mortality  Subscribe to read more

Question of the week
Are foodbanks an effective way of dealing with poverty?

To prevent multiple voting, we now ask readers to be logged in. This is free, quick and easy, honestly. Click here to login or register

Top comment

Fighting inequality and corruption in the world

Efforts are being made to combat corruption and sharp practice in global finance. Peter Selby has seen this at first hand  Subscribe to read more

Fri 21 Nov 14 @ 18:23
This week's @churchtimes caption competition (£) http://t.co/7MLykjnfbO http://t.co/e2W7Dcex09

Fri 21 Nov 14 @ 18:11
Church leaders condemn murder of American hostage http://t.co/qvOo6JbXHX