Last December, the journal Nature published an article titled “Degrowth can work — here’s how science can help.” The body of the article is overflowing with earnest assertions that don’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny. Indeed, the fatuity of many of its statements is reminiscent of idealistic youth who envision a better world and believe that all they have to do to achieve it is make everybody do A, B, and C, and — voilà! — problem fixed. Alas, the real world isn’t so easily controllable, nor does central planning have a track record that inspires confidence. Yes, I’m talking about socialist central planning here. That is what degrowth is all about.
The central policy prescription in the article is that “Wealthy economies should abandon growth of gross domestic product (GDP) as a goal, scale down destructive and unnecessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use, and focus economic activity around securing human needs and well-being.” Whew! Apart from trying to square the circle whereby negative growth will secure human well-being (something they believe can happen, and they even have a footnote to “prove it”), a major question is: Who will choose and implement the reforms? “Wealthy economies” are a collective abstraction. In real life, certain human beings make decisions and set policies. Certain individuals — you can refer to them by the shorthand term “an elite” — will have to decide which forms of production are “unnecessary.” Clearly, the planners don’t want consumers — folks like you and me — making those choices. Better to leave that to their “expert” hands.
As the authors proceed, they explain that negative growth is not their goal for everybody, but just for the more prosperous societies. Curbing growth in wealthier countries “frees up energy and materials for low- and middle-income countries.” Ah, now it’s clear: the degrowth agenda calls for a global shift in relative standards of living whereby the prosperous surrender some of their prosperity as a means of allowing poorer countries to catch up. (No wonder the degrowth agenda is popular with the Fraternity of Global Wealth Redistribution, commonly known as “the United Nations”!) The degrowth folks are still under the thrall of the Montaigne dogma that life is a zero-sum game — thinking that is several centuries out of date.
The desire for central planning is plain: “Degrowth is a purposeful strategy to stabilize economies and achieve social and ecological goals, unlike recession, which is chaotic.” Again, who determines the goals for an entire society? And we need to be alert that when central planners talk about “stabilizing economies,” they are talking about controlling them, which ossifies and stagnates them. Planners hate what they see as the “chaos” of free markets — the dynamic, creative destruction of capitalism that sweeps away value destroyers (a necessary corrective process that goes by the name of “recession”) and gives rise to value creators and fresh economic growth. This process of constant renewal enriches a society through an ever-evolving spontaneous order that no human being can plan or manage.
In case you were wondering, the degrowth crowd itself wants to dictate what is “less-necessary production.” They generously inform us that they want us to scale back fossil fuels (naturally) — but also “mass-produced meat and dairy, fast fashion, advertising, cars and aviation, including private jets.” Oh, yes, and don’t forget that we need to “reduce the purchasing power of the rich.” (Why don’t you just say “confiscate the bulk of their wealth via taxation”?)
But take comfort, friends — it won’t all be belt-tightening and deprivation. The degrowth crowd calls for “improv[ing] public services.” Yep, they plan to “ensure universal access to high-quality health care, education, housing, transportation, Internet, renewable energy and nutritious food.” Wow, less growth and more abundance! We can have our cake and eat it, too. Sign me up! (Not!)
Oh, wait, there are even more benefits in their imagined cornucopia. There is also “a green jobs guarantee” and “a universal income policy.” And all is to be financed through slower economic growth. What a vision! And they want to “reduce working time,” too. Well, I’ve got to agree that reducing the amount of human labor will certainly slow economic growth, so I commend the writers for that concession to economic reality.
The authors list five challenges that must be addressed while “implementing a more comprehensive strategy of degrowth — in a safe and just way.”
“Just”? Yes, our degrowth friends are social justice warriors, too.
Here are the five challenges they cite:
First, they see a need to impose an ESG mandate that would strip away the current moral and legal obligation of private companies to generate profits for their shareholders. “Social and environmental benefits” must be prioritized.
This new approach to business would “require new macro-economic models.” Please excuse my skepticism, but macroeconomic models share the same defects as global warming models — none of them describe the world as it really works. Instead, they repeatedly illustrate the digital truism “garbage in, garbage out.” (Maybe they are counting on ChatGPT to lead us all to the Promised Land of less growth and more prosperity.) You can see the recurring theme of government control resurface here because the writers call for “tighter border control of capital movements.” (Hmmm, I wonder if Joe Biden would have more enthusiasm for controlling flows of capital rather than immigrants across American borders.)
Second, the authors write that “New forms of financing will be needed to fund public services without growth.”
“New forms of financing”? That sounds promising. Hopefully that means no more government borrowing (debt) and no more inflation. Alas, not so. In fact, they explicitly endorse inflation when they write, “Governments that issue their own currency can use this power to finance social and ecological objectives.” Yep, just print more money and watch prosperity shrink, just like it has the last couple of years.
Primarily, though, the degrowth plan involves more of old forms of financing — mostly taxes, such as taxes on air travel and meat production as well as new “wealth taxes.” Not very original! But I wish they would explain what they mean by recommending “shared and collaborative consumption.” I already share consumption with family and friends, and I suspect you do, too, so are we going to be lumped together with strangers now? By what means do these planners want to “encourage” such new patterns of consumption?
Third, degrowth calls for intense management of “working-time reductions.” I’ll spare you the details here, but they are complex — enough, probably, to require several hundred thousand additional bureaucrats in the Swamp. The desire for degrowth to get people to work less is, however, not completely unqualified. The planners are worried that while “less commuting lowers energy use and carbon emissions,” there is a risk that “more travel or shopping during free time could increase emissions.” Yep, we need to beware of how Americans might choose to use their free time. The writers are tacitly conceding that Americans might not be particularly gung-ho about cutting back on either their freedom of movement or their consumption.
Fourth, the degrowth people want to “reshape provisioning systems.” They say we need “researchers” — more academic “experts” — to study the “provisioning systems for housing, transportation, communication, health care, education and food.” In tiresome “social justice” terms, they complain, “Affluent economies use more than their fair share of resources.” Pardon me, but every society is equally free to consume in accordance with how much wealth they can produce (Say’s Law) and borrow (the contemporary runaway “consume now, pay later” fool’s game). It isn’t the rich countries’ fault that the poorer countries have pursued unwise economic policies that curtailed their growth.
Fifth, there is the ever-present challenge to any new public policy proposal: “political feasibility and opposition.” Will a majority of voters embrace imposed negative growth? No, not if it is couched in those terms. Most voters are frequently deluded, but most of them aren’t outright stupid. So far, according to the authors, “political parties that have put forward degrowth ideas have received limited support in elections.” If they want to achieve greater electoral success, those advocating degrowth need to downplay the degrowth message and play up the promise of more freebies. That is how you seduce a democratic majority.
The authors are concerned about opposition from supporters of “elite interests” such as corporations, think tanks, and political parties. I find it interesting that they could write that without apparent irony, for it is difficult to imagine a more elitist cabal than the green socialists who aspire to transform and manage national economies and the global international order according to their own fantastic plans.
The authors also lament that they will have an uphill battle in convincing thinkers “rooted in mainstream neoclassical economics,” implying that they are backward-looking — even though neoclassical economics, which originated in the 1870s, is younger by more than a couple hundred years than the Montaigne dogma that the degrowth advocates cling to. They are also concerned about how to achieve their elitist agenda. They write that the degrowth movement “will require a massive mobilization of researchers in all disciplines” and “more funding.” Let’s hope that the Republican House doesn’t bankroll the degrowth plans to replace what is left of our free enterprise system with socialist central planning.
Brace yourselves, folks. You may be hearing a lot more about “degrowth” in the months ahead. Yes, the degrowth agenda is economically irrational, theoretically inconsistent, and plainly absurd, but since when have such “details” kept the Left from embracing destructive policies in recent years?