Yesterday, I attended a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on a new book by Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. The book, which I have yet to read, is rather provocative, as the Publishers’ Weekly review makes clear:
This probing study argues that, far from fostering rapacious materialism, economic growth is a prerequisite for the creation of a liberal, open society. Harvard economist Friedman, author of Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy in the 1980s, contends that periods of robust economic growth, in which most people see their circumstances palpably improving, foster tolerance, democracy and generous public support for the disadvantaged. Economic stagnation and insecurity, by contrast, usher in distrust, retrenchment and reaction, as well as a tightfisted callousness toward the poor and—from the nativism of 19th-century Populists to the white supremacist movement of the 1980s—a scapegoating of immigrants and minorities. Exploring two centuries of historical evidence, from income and unemployment data to period novels, Friedman elucidates connections between economic conditions, social attitudes and public policy throughout the world. He offers a nuanced defense of globalization against claims that it promotes inequality and, less convincingly, remains optimistic that technology will resolve the conflicts between continual growth and environmental degradation. Friedman’s progressive attitude doesn’t extend to his cautious approach to promoting growth in America; a critic of Bush’s tax cuts and deficits, he advocates fiscal discipline to free savings for investment, along with educational initiatives, including “school choice,” to boost worker productivity.
There’s something here for everyone, or rather something to annoy everyone. Friedman’s celebration of prosperity and consumerism is bound to upset many leftists; his view that economic growth is best fostered by government policies encouraging investment and not by a laissez-faire approach to the market will not sit well with libertarians and conservatives; and his definition of moral progress solely in terms of tolerance, fairness, and ohter liberal is sure to ruffle conservative and communitarian feathers.
There weren’t many leftists in evidence at the AEI symposium, but libertarian, conservative and communitarian objects were indeed offered, both by audience members and by discussants Chris DeMuth and Amitai Etzioni. DeMuth, among other things, chided Friedman for a rather simplistic equation of the Reagan and Bush 41/Bush 43 periods with stagnation and moral regression, and the Clinton years with growth and moral progress. Etzioni was particularly concerned about the effects of economic growth on human relationships and families, and about the fact that a lot of growth in recent years has been achieved by more people working longer hours. I don’t think Friedman had a response to the former; on the latter, he gave assurances that his book pays due attention to moral and religious values, and to the importance of human relationships — particularly marriage — in creating happiness.
I won’t comment further until I’ve read Friedman’s book (which I want to do); I wonder, among other things, if he deals with the relationship between economic growth and moral growth — as he defines it — in countries other than the U.S., including non-Western cultures. And while I’m not a conservative or communitarian, I was somewhat troubled by the fact that he seems to define moral progress exclusively in terms of liberal social values rather than, say, the health of families. (Conversely, however, I think that conservatives who talk about moral decline often act as if the waning and stigmatization of racism were not a substantial moral achievement.)
One somewhat off-topic observation. One of the questioners during the Q & A was Michael McManus of Marriage Savers, who faulted Friedman for omitting marriage, divorce, and out-of-wedlock birth rates from his measurements of moral progress. McManus opened his question thusly:
“Three thousand people died on 9/11, but since 9/11 we have had six million divorces in this country …”
McManus may have an entirely legitimate concern, but did he have to tie it to 9/11 and suggest that somehow, the toll of divorce is equivalent to that of terrorism? One post-9/11 blight has been the proliferation of terrorism metaphors in discussions of domestic policies and issues — metaphors promiscuously used by both left and right to indict everything from hog farming to teachers’ unions. Enough is enough. I believe it was Midge Decter who once called for a moratorium on the Nazi metaphors in debates of domestic American issues. Maybe it’s time for such a moratorium on terrorism and 9/11 metaphors.