Almost everyone can agree that economic growth is good: the material benefits of more jobs, better pay, bigger houses and more money to spend on education and healthcare are indisputable. There may be a few spoilers railing against resource depletion, urban blight, and greenhouse gases, but ultimately those problems can be overcome by growth also. Now Harvard professor Benjamin Friedman argues that in addition to material benefits there are also moral benefits.
Friedmand writes that: "Economic growth - meaning a rising standard of living for a clear majority of citizens - more often than not fosters greater oppurtunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy." And conversely, when there is economic stagnation or decline the citizen's "moral character" tends to decline accordingly, there being less tolerance, less openess, and less generosity to the poor and the disadvantaged.
Using the United States as a case in point, Friedman argues that from 1953 to 1973 median family income doubled. As the economy grew and Americans prospered, society became more open and tolerant. During this period, segregation became unconstitutional, the right to vote was guaranteed, racial discrimination was banned, fair housing and equal employment opportunity legislation was enacted. These events made America a more just and equitable society. Then from 1973 to 1995, the average wage in today's dollars declined. The national mood toward progressive social programs began to sour. Indeed these programs were cited by some as being unduly burdensome and being the cause of slow wage growth. Nevertheless, in times of falling incomes, Americans naturally become more concerned with their share of the shrinking economic pie. Friedman also sees here a deterioration of moral character.
It should be fairly obvious by now that Friedman is a liberal and equates morality with social welfare programs - this being the most contentious issue of the book. Conservatives and libertarians will be quick to point out that support for affirmative action, immigration, strong unions, endangered species, etc. have been detrimental to economic growth and are, therefore, by Friedman's definition, immoral. These critics will claim that in order to foster economic growth we must have reduced taxes, less regulation, non-union labor and fewer workplace rules. The resulting economic growth would raise all boats, and would thus be morally correct.
Friedman and his critcs do not disagree that the end result of economic growth - aside from material well-being - should be tolerance, openess, social mobility and dedication to democracy. They disagree on the means of achieving those goals. Friedman favors government intervention on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged. The big question is whether or not it is in fact helping them. Two other books that have examined this question are Amartya Sen's "Development As Freedom" and Jeffrey Sach's "The End of Poverty." They have concluded that the poor must be provided with at least the basic tools for develpment. This doesn't mean generous welfare programs, but it does mean some public assistance - they need basic capablilites to achieve and contribute to society. Friedman is at his best when he stresses the importance of economic growth in providing these opportunities.