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Giles Fraser: Probing the virtues of economic growth

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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.

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