Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Daniel Ben-Ami on pessimist puritans

Scepticism about economic growth is a reactionary, not a radical philosophy

Daniel Ben-Ami's new book `Ferraris For All', published by the Policy Press, is a great read. Ben-Ami's point is to defend the idea of economic development against the `growth sceptics' who have emerged in various blue, green and red guises recently.

What he does especially well is to point out how conservative, how elitist and anti-aspirational, so many of the critics of economic growth are. In a fascinating chapter he explores the way in which the Left has abandoned the idea of progress, and turned conservative:

Nowadays it has reached the stage where what passes for radical thinking is typically imbued with deep social pessimism and hostility to economic growth. Paradoxically, to the extent that any current is associated with advocating prosperity, it is often the free market Right.

Ben-Ami's chapter on happiness research is especially enlightening. He points out that not only are its basic empirical assumptions deeply flawed -- most people are happy, happiness does correlate with prosperity and the paradox of mental illness engendered by affluence is merely an artefact of steadily widening definitions of mental illness - but its aims are reactionary and misanthropic:

The underlying message of the happiness movement is deeply conservative: be happy with what you have got. Such an outlook is entirely consistent with elitist defence of privilege that characterises growth scepticism more generally.

(I have always liked Gregg Easterbrook's comment on happiness research:

Researching this book, and thinking about the alternatives, has caused me to begin whispering a regular prayer of thanks. Thank you that I and five hundred million others are well-housed, well-supplied, over-fed, free and not content; because we might be starving, wretched, locked under tyranny, and equally not content.)

Ben-Ami ends with a powerful call to rehabilitate growth as a goal for humanity:

Growth scepticism is in many respects the opposite to what most of its supporters assume it to be. They typically see it as humane, egalitarian, radical, respectful of the environment and scornful of the obsession with consumption in western societies. But it is inhumane, elitist, conservative, misanthropic and more preoccupied with consumption than anything else. If our great grandparents were alive today they would be astonished by our lack of gratitude...

This is an important and original book.