The Hastert Center for Economics, Government, And Public Policy at Wheaton College hosted an event last Thursday on the morality of economic growth, co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. The central speaker, Dr. Smith of Gordon College, argued that economic growth should be a moral imperative for Christians, especially if we are concerned about poverty.
As a person engaged in economic sociology (and a respondent at the event), I appreciated the fact this conversation was taking place. We need more dialogue on the moral character of market life. What does it mean to live ethical economic lives—as individuals, communities, and societies?
However, in a world where it seems that governments and policy-makers often just assume that growth is good, I’d like to suggest that growth in itself is not good. I recognize the great strides we have made in lowering infant mortality (and the rise in other development indicators) in the last two centuries. However, I think we should ask, “When is growth good?” or “How do we promote ethical economic growth?”
Some reasons why I think growth is sometimes not good:
1.Poverty and inequality are related. Many people will focus on absolute poverty as the central issue. Clearly, issues of absolute poverty are important. As Christians, we should be invested in anti-poverty efforts that ensure people have enough to eat and a place to live. But relative poverty is also important—a concept that considers one’s wealth and resources in relationship to others in society. Relative poverty can negatively impact one’s social networks, employment, educational opportunities, and political involvement. Growing inequality is often linked with increased social isolation (that is, the poor living with the poor, and the wealthy with the wealthy). In a world where the wealthy have more than enough, ethical growth must be measured in terms of how the poor fare—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the wealthy.
2. Value creation matters. While the ends of growth are important, the means by which growth is received and earned is also important. How is economic growth achieved? Is it through individuals having more creative power to exercise? Is it through business being able to get more out of workers and manage the process more effectively? In an economic marketplace where businesses have more power than individuals, and the poor are at the bottom of commodity chain processes, ethical growth demands attention to increasing the capacity of the poor to be involved in more active and significant ways in the economy. It should increase the potential of those at the bottom to be involved in value-creation activities.
3. Relationships are central. The rise of a free-market system is connected in some ways to a more depersonalized market. Most of us do not know the people that we are involved with in economic transactions. But this does not mean those relationships do not exist. Many assessing economic growth center on the individual as the basic unit of analysis, and maximizing individual (or the sum of individual) well-being as the end goal. But as Christians, why should we assume the individual is the central variable of analysis? In my study of religious communities engaging in debates over international trade, I find that they all prioritize right relationships and community as a central goal of economic life. What would it mean to demand ethical and life-affirming relationships as a basis for market transactions?
Although economic issues are often considered distinct from moral issues, many voices (religious and otherwise) are challenging this assumption. As a sociologist, I recognize that markets are social constructions, and values are embedded within them. As a Christian, I want to live in right relationships (with others, with God, with the earth). For me, this means asking how engage in more ethical relationships within a depersonalized market, and how to promote policies that prioritize (more) healthy relationships within the marketplace.