Model Argument Against Benjamin Friedman

Not against the idea that growth is good (heaven forbid), but against what Friedman says is good about it.

(Cogency warning: this is a sketch, and only sketch. Blog as dialectical scratchpad.)

Friedman argues that economic growth “fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy,” and that these are moral goods.

This is a varied list, is it not? Let’s just assume that Friedman is arguing that growth actually produces more fairness and democracy and not just “commitment” and “dedication.” Anyway, many of the things on the list strike me as the vehicles through which growth creates moral consequences.
This of course all depends on what you think “morality” is about. What do I think morality is about? I think morality is, on the one hand, about people realizing the ends that make their lives meaningful and, on the other, about the constraints on individual and collective opportunistic behavior that enable individuals to realize their meaningful ends in cooperation with others.

It turns out that my foundational theory of what morality is FOR says that the function of morality is, by and large, to enable gains from cooperation. That is, the point of morality is to produce cooperative surpluses. (That morality does enable gains from cooperation is an evolutionary possibility condition for morality. If it didn’t enable cooperative gains by constraining opportunistic behavior, morality wouldn’t exist.) But economic growth just is periodic expansion in the overall size of the surplus in the broader network of cooperation. So, the way I see it, economic growth is more or less what morality is for.

For instance, fairness matters because cooperative surpluses matter. If we cannot divide the gains from cooperation according to terms that each party finds mutually agreeable, then we will not cooperate, and so there will be no gains to divide. Fairness is morally desirable because gains from cooperation are morally desirable. If growth produces more fairness, then great, because fairness leads to cooperation, which leads to cooperative surpluses, and better cooperation leads to bigger surpluses, which is what we want! The moral consequence of fairness is: growth! And if Friedman is right and fairness is a moral consequence of growth, then growth is a moral consequence of itself. Growth is its own reward!

Surplus is desirable because we’re individually better off with a piece of the surplus than without a piece. That’s why we cooperate. And by “better off” I mean: helps us realize our meaningful ends. I actually mean more than that. The surplus often opens up the space of ends, making formerly infeasible ends feasible. Some of these ends will be more meaningful for us than the ends in the pre-surplus feasible set. So surpluses can make available more meaningful ends, and therefore more meaningful lives. And meaningful lives is the real bottom line.

If increasing cooperative surpluses in the service of meaningful lives is what morality is for, then it may seem that growth is basically what morality is for. Maybe we’ve got a scalability issue here, and surpluses arising from huge impersonal networks of cooperation have too many negative external effects, and so defeat the ability to put our shares of the surplus to use in building meaningful lives. Morality collapses in on itself at a certain scale. I doubt it. But the real point is that this is a question about whether morality is scalable or self-defeating. If we can point out that growth has moral consequences, but all we’re doing when we point that out is that growth helps consolidate the preconditions for growth, then we will have gotten exactly nowhere.

Either growth facilitates our ability to live ever more meaningful lives in cooperation with one another or it doesn’t. If it does, that’s the worthy moral consequence of growth. If growth does that in part by promoting itself through increasing cosmopolitanism, broadening opportunity, increasing demand for liberal political institutions, etc., then great. But we should just take the argument straight home to meaningful lives rather then getting hung up in the socio-political instrumentalities. If growth doesn’t facilitate our ability to live ever more meaningful lives in cooperation with one another, then growth is immoral, even if the antecedents of growth are morality itself. Then our task would be to pick out where the scale problem begins, and try to refurbish morality, and our moral sensbility, to reflect its own limitations of scope.

Well, I’ve got some real problems with that, but it was fun! What’s your beef?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center