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Be Fruitful, Multiply, and Grow the Economy

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In one of the most memorable mid-1990s episodes of The Simpsons, the curmudgeonly misanthrope Charles Montgomery Burns achieves a lifelong dream:


Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I shall do the next best thing: block it out.

While Mr. Burns had no use for our nearest star, the other residents Springfield were dismayed by the citywide sun-block. They understood, as Steve Martin once said, that “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”

Only a cartoon villain would propose an idea as absurd as blocking out the sunshine. But in the real world we find its economic equivalent: opposing economic growth.

A prime example is Eugene McCarraher, an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University, who recently wrote in The Hedgehog Review:

The beatific vision of the capitalist moral imagination is the Gross Domestic Product: the yearly growth in the volume of goods and services whose increase is never questioned.

Similarly, the British economic historian Robert Skidelsky says that in his new book he “rejects indefinite economic growth for reasons which are substantially, though by no means exclusively, conservative.”

Too much growth, like too much sunshine, can indeed by be harmful to human flourishing. But why would anyone oppose long-term economic growth?

Consider the consequences if there were to be a long period in the U.S. with no economic growth. The result would be almost as cataclysmic as blocking out the sun:

• Unemployment and poverty would skyrocket.
• The national debt would increase as tax revenues declined.
• Banks and other financial institutions would go bankrupt, leading to housing and credit crises.
• Housing and land prices would sharply increase.
• Food prices would increase, leading to famine in other countries and hunger in our own.
• Social welfare programs would have to be scaled back.
• Federal and state governments would not be able to service their debts.
• Workers would have to work longer hours to maintain their current standard of living.

In other words, as soon as economic growth stops, economic decline starts.

But what causes the immediate decline? In a word: babies. As the population increases, more resources are needed to feed, clothe, and shelter all of the new people that are being created. To understand why this is happens, let’s consider a scaled-down economic model.

Imagine a village that has 100 people living in a state of economic equilibrium, that is, their economy is neither growing nor shrinking. Everyone has just enough food, clothing, shelter, and other amenities to take care of themselves—no more and no less than enough for subsistence living. Now let’s imagine that a “baby boom” occurs, and 20 new children are added to the village. What happens to the standard of living for the villagers? Assuming that they redistribute their resources equitably, everyone (including the new children) will only have 83% of the resources they need to survive. Over time, they will begin to starve or die of malnutrition.

We can see this occurring today in countries with low economic growth. As the population increases, there are not enough resources for everyone to rise above the poverty level.

Similarly, in the U.S. we need to create around 400,000 new jobs every month just to keep up with the babies that are growing up and entering the labor market. If the economy does not grow, there will be no jobs for them. In the short term redistribution of resources (e.g., unemployment compensation, welfare) will prevent the unemployed from going hungry. But without long-term growth a countries wealth becomes depleted, causing instability and social breakdown.

However, if the new workers do find jobs and are engaging in productive labor, the economy will automatically grow as these laborers buy goods and services. Economic growth is, after all, a natural byproduct of productivity.

So why do some people oppose economic growth? There are 3 likely reasons:

1. They don’t really understand what economic growth means; they assume opposing economic growth is the same as opposing “materialism.”

2. They believe economic growth harms the environment (e.g., contributes to global warming).

3. They want to limit population growth.

Reasons #2 and #3 often go together. There are a broad variety of neo-Malthusians, ranging from the “slow growth” advocates who would be happy with a return to a Medieval-era economy to the radical anti-human environmentalists who believe the planet would be better off without the species homo sapiens.

One trait they all share in common, though, is the idea that the number of babies born into the world should be radically curtailed. Telling people to stop breeding isn’t particularly effective, but fortunately for their purposes the same outcome can be achieved by limiting economic growth. Make the world miserable and poor enough and people will make the rational choice to limit the number of children they bring into the world.

Needless to say, this anti-natalist, nature-repristination philosophy is antithetical to Christianity. The very first commandment that God gave mankind was to, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” By simply fulfilling that command we trigger the factors that lead to economic growth—increased population, increased productivity, and accumulation of capital resources.

Economic growth is therefore not, as McCarraher claims, the “beatific vision of the capitalist moral imagination.” It’s neither a goal that should be pursued for its own sake nor a means to achieve a materialist paradise. Economic growth is not the chief end of man, but merely the blessing that results from fulfilling God’s cultural mandate.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • What if we added the modifier “sustainable” to the goal of “economic growth”?

    • I’m not opposed to qualifying it with the term “sustainable,” I’m just not sure how helpful it is since the term is so vague. I also think we run into the Hayekian knowledge problem of what exactly constitutes sustainable. If you had asked people in the 1800s they would have said that the growth in the 1900s wasn’t sustainable for decades on end. I also fear that it can be used to advance, in a softer way, the population control agenda.

      But to be honest, I don’t think the question about whether economic growth is sustainable will be relevant (at least in America) for another decade. Unless something changes radically, we’ll be lucky to have growth enough to catch up to the levels we have lost. While it might be relevant in Asian countries—especially India and China—I don’t think we’ll grow fast enough to make sustainability a real concern.

      • I don’t disagree that it can be an amorphous term. But then again, there are things that are rather clearly unsustainable, so maybe it can be used purely negatively to at least describe the kind of growth that ought not be pursued. I’m thinking of “growth” on the backs of unsustainable levels of debt, intergenerational entitlement promises, and so on. Think of it along the lines more generally of approaching natural resources and their use maximized for the longer term (not killing the golden goose), as well as against focusing on quarterly returns to the detriment of a business’s longevity.

        • That’s a very good point. Maybe it would be useful to qualify my support for “natural economic growth”—the productivity gains and increase in living standards that occur from full employment of a growing population.

          Increases in growth that are due to non-natural (e.g., based on deficit spending) and short-term focus should be opposed by everyone, since the long-term effect is detrimental.

        • Martial_Artist

          By modifying the noun “growth” with the adjective “sustainable” it is my opinion that you do no more than cloud the issue, at least in terms of economic understanding. This is shown perhaps most clearly by your citing as examples increases in the levels of entitlements that are not founded on increases in the net productivity of the nation’s economy. If one attempts to increase the distribution of wealth without, or even so as to prevent the increase of the production (i.e., wealth) of the economy, one is fostering not “growth,” but rather “poverty” or, to put it in more explanatory terms, “diminution” of wealth. Such linguistic trickery is, in no small part, why we are in the economic/fiscal difficulty that we find ourselves. It is akin to a form of deceptive advertising to call a thing by a term which implies it is what it most clearly is not.

          Pax et bonum,
          Keith Töpfer

          • I think you can have unsustainable growth; “bubbles” are a great example. I chose the entitlement problems because those are the most obvious, but I also think that growth focused exclusively on near or short-term returns (e.g. quarterly earnings) can create unsustainable growth. From a broader perspective, I think you are right to question whether such things can be called “growth” at all, but again a great deal depends on what the time horizon is.

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