In 1820, America’s per capita income averaged $1,980, in today’s dollars. But by 2000, it had increased to $43,000. That economic growth has benefited the rich, of course. But it has also transformed the lives of the poor—and prevented many more from becoming or staying poor. Because of economic growth we not only have less poverty and hunger, but less disease and and increase in life expectancy measured in decades.
Yet despite these benefits we are often uncomfortable with economic growth, i.e., a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens. Indeed we are, as Benjamin M. Friedman says, we tend to denigrate the material welfare of ourselves and our neighbors are being of little moral consequence:
The root of the problem, I believe, is that our conventional thinking about economic growth fails to reflect the breadth of what growth, or its absence, means for a society. We recognize, of course, the advantages of a higher material standard of living, and we appreciate them. But moral thinking, in practically every known culture, enjoins us not to place undue emphasis on our material concerns. We are also increasingly aware that economic development—industrialization in particular, and more recently globalization—often brings undesirable side effects, like damage to the environment or the homogenization of what used to be distinctive cultures, and we have come to regard these matters, too, in moral terms. On both counts, we therefore think of economic growth in terms of material considerations versus moral ones: Do we have the right to burden future generations, or even other species, for our own material advantage? Will the emphasis we place on growth, or the actions we take to achieve it, compromise our moral integrity? We weigh material positives against moral negatives.
I believe this thinking is seriously, in some circumstances dangerously, incomplete. The value of a rising standard of living lies not just in the concrete improvements it brings to how individuals live but in how it shapes the social, political and, ultimately, the moral character of a people.