Why is there mass support for policy emphasis on national economic growth amongst intellectuals, politicians, bureaucrats and social scientists?

This ‘growth fetish’ seems to be the main stumbling block in effective climate change treaties and effective cooperation on scarce natural resources (ocean fish; pollution).

Nearly all countries pay continual lip-service to the idea that humanity as a whole should unite to overcome these problems by limiting its growth (a nice example are the ‘millennium goals of the UN’; pipe-dreams if ever there were any), yet national governments invariably back down when truly invasive measures are needed.

Agreements on limiting greenhouse gasses have taken over 20 years to negotiate and the resulting protocols (Kyoto and other ones in the pipeline) are projected to have virtually no effect at all. This is because they exclude the major growth economies and do not entail any effective big reduction of the current players and major reductions are needed to actually balance CO2 levels. Similarly, international agreements on reducing the fishing capacity of humanity have miserably failed, leading to the current collapse in fishing stocks. The most immediate puzzle is what is actually ‘in it’ for the elite of countries to keep insisting on national economic growth, thereby creating the free-riding problem we see in environmental matters?

A first naive thought is that economic growth increases the national pie and that it is easier for the elite to appropriate an increase in the pie than to appropriate a piece of the existing pie by dispossessing others. Psychologists indeed tell us that such a territorial instinct (a strong willingness to protect whatever we have now, termed status quo bias; loss-aversion; etc.) applies to the current division of the current pie. Yet, this does not explain why the scientists, politicians, and advisers are so in favour of economic growth for these are not particularly well-placed to siphon off an additional piece of the pie: it’s the powerful elite interest groups which have that privilege.

So what is a scientist actually thinking of when they consider the benefits of economic growth? Do they really think individuals get much happier on aggregate when they all get much richer? This has been shown not to be the case, especially for rich countries like the US, the UK and Germany. In these countries happiness levels have remained fairly constant despite more than trebling economic wealth. Hence only misinformed scientists could think that people get happier as they get richer.

More importantly, do scientists and advisers actually care for everyone in their national population individually? Or would they, like anybody else, not really personally want to know the vast majority of their population and shun them whenever they meet them in person? Surely the latter appears likely. What is it then about the idea of economic growth that is so appealing?

One thought is that such a scientist has an abstraction in their head of their country as a whole and wishes that abstraction to ‘grow’, ‘compete’, and preferably ‘overtake’ the alternative nationalities. They take pride in the aggregate power and standing of their country, not the happiness of the individual citizens, because its the former that corresponds to what they have in their heads. Note that such a theory has quite strong implications: it’s not about happiness at all then, nor would this ‘group impulse’ go away with any environmental problem. One would truly need an involuntary uniting of all countries into a single command-and-control centre to get rid of this impulse. Scary thought.

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