Economic growth is controversial. While economists tend to support it, in recent decades economic growth has been vigorously critiqued from multiple points of view, including from Christian theology and ethics. In this article Edd S. Noell and Stephen L. S. Smith analyze economic growth in light of both economics and Christian theology, and make a case for growth’s importance and legitimacy in Christian theological terms, pointing to the implications of the creativity present in the Imago Dei. They also address two of the most commonly voiced moral and theological concerns about growth, namely, that it harms the environment and local communities. Noell and Smith benefited from participant comments at presentations of earlier versions of this piece at the annual meetings of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture and the Southern Economic Association. They wish to thank Steven Bouma-Prediger, Benjamin Friedman, John Lunn, Steve McMullen, and two anonymous referees for comments, without in any way implicating them in errors that remain in the piece. Noell is Professor of Economics at Westmont College, and Smith is Professor of Economics at Hope College. They gratefully acknowledge the financial support of their home institutions (and Smith’s former institution, Gordon College), and of a 2014 Acton Institute Mini-Grant.
Market-oriented economists have long made the case for economic growth based on the economic record of its advantages. Growth has propelled much of the world towards heights of material well-being in the past few centuries that would have been unimaginable to our earlier ancestors. Despite economists’ well-known proclivity for disagreement amongst themselves, positive sentiment in the discipline about growth is close to unanimous: it is good for the sake of prosperity and even, some claim, for moral reasons.
By contrast, economic growth has been subject to withering critique by scholars in the humanities and the social and natural sciences. These objections are broad and serious. Some contest the fundamental merit of human prosperity, while others blame growth for contributing to the problems of consumerism, materialism, environmental damage, and income inequality. This disciplinary divide over growth is evident as much in the thinking of Christian as of secular scholars.
We examine how the dispute over growth is understood theologically and morally among Christian scholars. We argue that currently neglected Christian theological themes relating to God’s creativity, creation itself, and the significance for humans of the Imago Dei have deep implications for evaluating economic growth. Consideration of these stewardship values distinguishes the Christian case for economic growth from secular claims, and should temper the current Christian theological and moral critique of growth.
By economic growth we mean the sustained increase in a nation’s (or the world’s) production of goods and services per person, a concept technically known as per capita gross domestic product (GDP). Though imperfect, GDP per capita is a generally accurate indicator of a nation’s standard of living because the availability of goods and services is a fundamental determinant of material well-being.1
Since the mid-eighteenth century an epochal rise in the rate of economic growth has transformed economic life, first in the West and now, increasingly, in the rest of the world. As recently as in 1820 approximately 150 infants of every one thousand born in the United Kingdom (the world’s richest country at that time) would die before their first birthday; the current rate is less than five. Since the close of World War II, real (inflation adjusted) per capita national income in the United States has risen by a factor of four, making U.S. citizens dramatically better off in terms of fundamental indicators of well-being such as longevity, infant mortality rates, and educational attainment. In the developing world, growth in China, fueled in part by market-oriented reforms, has lowered that nation’s subsistence poverty rate from 67 percent in 1990 to less than 1 percent by 2015, and India’s recent growth has also propelled a dramatic reduction in its poverty rate, while opening up new opportunities for socially-ostracized castes.2
None of this is to argue that growth is perfect or easy, or to deny the complexity of economic policy choices and the politics, sociology, and geography of growth and development. Indeed, the economics literature surrounding economic growth has expanded significantly in recent decades to begin to apprehend growth in all of its economic complexity, let alone its further dimensions.3 But as we argued in our 2013 book (with Bruce Webb), and as many others have argued, sustained economic growth in recent centuries has fundamentally improved material well-being in ways large and small, and in ways often taken for granted. Ongoing growth remains important, even in developed countries, because of the resources it can generate for important new products and services and for its fiscal benefits in terms of funding public goods and social welfare programs.
The many Christian critics of growth are not impressed. One objection is that creation is groaning from near-catastrophic damage from economic growth.4 Another objection is moral, voiced as much by non-Christian as Christian critics, that legitimate human desires are distorted by the drive for economic growth, accompanied by “the commercially promoted explosion of human needs in our already-rich societies.”5 Similarly, the case is made that economic growth in developed economies is rooted in greed, and tends merely to satisfy the leisure interests of those who are already wealthy.6
These current arguments against growth come not just from theology but from across the entire spectrum of disciplines: the social and behavioral sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and indeed, from a handful of economists as well.7 The critics may countenance growth-increasing policies in countries that are currently developing8 but challenge the need for economic growth in developed countries.
One has to go back three decades to find a substantive presentation of a Christian case for economic growth that roots its claims in biblical ethics.9 It is true that there have been Christian responses that affirm the “good of affluence” that God pronounces in the Scriptures,10 or which defend markets as consistent with Christian values11 and emphasize the “essential liberties needed for economic growth.”12 We find this scholarship helpful in amplifying and pushing beyond the secular arguments for the positive moral consequences of growth made by economists in recent years.13 Further, a number of Christian economists have engaged theologians on globalization and the ethics of markets.14 These are important because the case for growth is inextricably linked to the case for markets, and long-term innovation-based growth emerges most consistently from liberal market economies. Still, there remains a need for a comprehensive treatment of the economic and moral case for growth that responds to modern moral and Christian theological objections.
This paper begins that task. In the next section we discuss the Christian theological themes that inform our analysis of growth. These include the concepts of wisdom and prudence (practical wisdom), creativity, work, and the Imago Dei, the implications of which for growth have been underappreciated, we argue, by much of current Christian thinking. Consideration of these important theological and economic underpinnings supports the case for growth in richer countries as well as in poorer countries. We then consider two of the most potent criticisms of growth, namely, its environmental unsustainability and its harmful moral consequences for human communities. In each case, we argue that both economic insight and Christian theology offer helpful counter-views. We conclude by considering whether growth is an instrumental or intrinsic good, and argue that like democracy and markets it has aspects of both. It serves society best when it flows from a healthy culture that orients citizens towards lives of Christian faith, virtue, and wisdom, personally and socially.
Growth in Christian Theological Perspective
The case for re-assessing economic growth builds on an examination of particular Christian concepts related to God’s creativity, including the creation itself, the significance for humans of being made in the image of God (the Imago Dei), the nature of labor, and wisdom and prudence (a cardinal virtue). A number of largely overlooked dimensions of these notions distinguish the Christian case for economic growth from secular claims.15
Genesis 1 and 2 describe God’s creative activity in fashioning the earth and its bounty of life. In creating stars and seas, plants and animals, God declares them (five times) to be good. The material world and the wealth it yields are not inherently evil; rather, the material world is to be given respect as the product of God’s creative declaration (“then God said”). In Genesis 1:26-31 we read that humans are made in the image of God, are given the task of being fruitful and subduing all of the rest of God’s creation, and God declares that this is “very good” (v. 31). We note here several facets of what is “very good.” While other ancient cultures identified only their royal ruler as bearing God’s image (for example, Pharaoh bore the image of God in Egypt), the Old Testament declares that all humans bear the Imago Dei. Humans are to represent God’s rule over the world by being God’s vice-regents. They do so in acting creatively—as God was and is creative—and their labor and rest have dignity attached to them because God, too, labored and rested. While God is the ultimate owner of creation, humans made in his image are given the “creation mandate” to fill the earth and bring forth its bounty while maintaining care for the earth as stewards responsible to the Creator.
One aspect of this creaturely task is to combine resources to create value. Clearly there is an intrinsic value to creation, as evident from God’s declaration of its goodness. Value is imputed to the creation by the Creator. In expressing the Imago Dei, we follow God in his initiative and creativity to make the earth productive as God’s stewards. In short, in exercising command over the resources God has given us, humans add value to creation. Our creativity builds on God’s creation, a creation that was designed with that end in mind.16 We affirm this to be a crucial economic implication of the Genesis 1 narrative. Economists recognize the practice of “bringing value-added” in producing greater and new kinds of output over time as integral to economic growth. Indeed, measuring value-added for GDP in an economy over time is one means of recording an economy’s growth.
Pursuing God’s direction to “till the garden and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), the first humans brought value-added in food and flower. In general, the act of producing goods and services that benefit others and promote material flourishing is deemed as good in Genesis, much as God delights in his creation as “very good” in Genesis 1:31. It is perhaps best captured in the notion of stewardship.17 Economic growth flows from the activity of creatures made in God’s image, who act not as the ultimate owners of the earth, but are instead stewards engaged in reshaping the Creator’s resources in a productive manner for human flourishing.
What is evident before the Fall is even more so after. Having been delivered by God from Egypt, the people of Israel receive God’s gracious material provision alongside specific revelation regarding its use. In this regard God’s word to them through Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 8 is deeply instructive. Israel is welcomed into the promised land with a stern warning to not forget God and an explicit invitation to use the riches of the land to build wealth: “build fine houses” (v. 12) and “dig copper out of the hills” (v. 9)—that is, generate value added, enjoy growth—but “remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (v. 18).
A further link between creation and growth is rooted in individuals’ inalienable dignity. Therefore institutions should respect human freedom of action and the legitimacy of human command over resources (though individuals are called to make wise decisions about their time, talents, and responsibilities). Institutions that do this will, by default, promote value-added and growth.
Of course, on this side of the Fall, not everything the market (or government) generates is value added that benefits others. Market prices may measure the gain of improved medical treatments for heart disease as equal to the “gain” of wider access to prostitution services. Government over-investment in physical infrastructure may raise growth rates without serving the common good. A Christian case for economic growth must therefore also point to the importance of healthy culture and governance in achieving the genuine human flourishing that accords with biblical principles. These are the enduring foundations for a healthy ethics of economic growth.
At the microeconomic level such an ethic of economic growth recognizes the roles of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, crucial means by which the responsible steward acts to create value in the face of limited knowledge. Such initiatives require a large measure of economic freedom. Not coincidentally, they are integral to economic growth.
Human plans to create wealth face inherent uncertainty. Scripture affirms God alone is omniscient; for humans, prospective demand and cost conditions are unknown. This problem is exacerbated by the presence of sin and the curse placed upon the earth’s resources, as recorded in Genesis 3:17-19. Not only is human knowledge finite, but sin also distorts our understanding. Yet even after the Fall, humans retain the image of God (James 3:9) and the dignity of the stewardship task given to us in engaging in labor and creating value-added. The task of being engaged in fashioning what is good is not negated by the presence of sin, yet the curse places impediments upon the economic project. Wise stewards recognize the challenges to completing the tasks to which they are called, and count the costs, as Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 14:28-30. This inherently involves a subjective forecast of economic conditions drawn up under the constraint of creaturely limitations. Any entrepreneur, anticipating costs associated with decisions, must calculate those costs prospectively. Risk is invariably part of the entrepreneurial process associated with generating economic growth.
Wisdom helps humanity address risk. Wisdom is intimately related to creativity and healthy accumulation of wealth. Proverbs 8 uses the poetic device of personifying wisdom, who the author tells us was with the Lord at “the very beginning” and “delighted in His creation” (vv. 23, 30) and in his acts of creation. Further, wisdom “dwells together with prudence” (v. 12), that is, with practical wisdom, and with wisdom “are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity” (v. 18). The chapter thus links practical wisdom with creativity and creation of wealth, and celebrates both as good, while echoing, in verse 13, the warning from Deuteronomy 8 that in the midst of wealth it is essential to not forget the Lord.18 As image-bearers of God, we are called to act on the promise of discernment so that God will guide us in how we might rightly make use of his resources.
Another important feature of the case for economic growth, albeit an indirect one, is tied to specialization. In the original economic circumstances described in Genesis 1 and 2, each person would seem to have similar knowledge about planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Yet human history records that as knowledge grew it became specialized immediately,19 and increasingly so over time, so that God’s gifting of humans is manifested in a dispersal of talent and knowledge. Specialization confers enormous advantages to any economy, regardless of its technological level. As Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok note,
In a modern economy, many millions of times more knowledge is used than can exist in single brain. In the United States, for example, we don’t just have doctors—we have neurologists, cardiologists, gastroenterologists, gynecologists, and urologists, to name just a few of the many specializations in medicine.20
Individuals, groups, and nations in a given moment or era find there are products that they are good at making, and products they are less good at making—and then exchange the former for the latter.21 For individuals, that exchange is experienced in the form of earning income in their specialized work and then spending that income on all the other things they consume or use, a process so natural that it often does not feel like “exchange.” But trading is the key to the society-wide sharing of the fruits of specialization; without trade, the benefits of specialization and creative work in specific areas of life cannot be sustained. Humankind’s creative Imago Dei persists even after the Fall, and satisfaction of those innate human desires for creativity and improvement is empowered by specialization and trade. Thus, as an indirect outworking of particularized human creativity, the economy experiences growth.22
The fact that human creativity is a sign of God’s image in us, and is the proximate source of economic growth, has a further implication. Creativity is free and inexhaustible. Therefore economic growth can proceed, in principle—in the cultural and institutional contexts that allow free rein to creativity—forever. Growth can go on indefinitely for the same reason new music can always be written, or new paintings and sculptures made: the creative impulse is part of our nature.
This is not to say that culture or institutions, or war and sin, cannot suppress growth (as indeed has been the case for much of human history). Nor is it to say that creativity is always exercised in godly ways. Nor is it to say that richer countries can grow as rapidly as poorer countries; the latter, while catching up, can make fast strides by following the technological path of richer countries, whose growth slows because of the difficulties and uncertainties of investments at technological frontiers. Nor is it to say that growth poses no social or environmental challenges. But it is to say that economic growth is fundamentally different than biological growth. Trees grow and organically hit a limit; humans grow tall and hit their biological limit; but economies do not face those limits. As long as successive generations steward resources creatively, invent new services that have value for others, or find new efficiencies in production that free resources for other good uses, there will be economic growth.
Finally, a Christian ethic of growth, rooted in the Imago Dei, must properly recognize the Sabbath principle: God rests, and so should we. The Sabbath is made for humans, and not the other way around, as Jesus affirms (Mark 2:27). Established before the Fall, it is time set aside for us to reflect on God’s holy and benevolent character as well as to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation (which includes ourselves and our labor). It is one crucial means by which we “do not forget the Lord,” as Deuteronomy 8 repeatedly warns. But in our fallen-ness we are tempted to neglect the Sabbath, particularly when work and acquisition of goods and other forms of status become ends in themselves. Scripture frames the celebratory dimension of the Sabbath in a community context. The Pentateuch enjoins God’s people to make provision for the poor and marginalized as an outworking of the Sabbath rest principle.
Christian thinkers through the ages have labored to discern the implications for economic life inherent in the Sabbath, the Mosaic Sabbath regulations, and, closely related, the Jubilee institution (Deuteronomy 15).23 Today, as in biblical times, taking significant rest each week and caring for the poor are profoundly countercultural activities, and many Christian thinkers infer, therefore, that practicing the Sabbath is antithetical to economic growth.24 This is misjudged. Rest, serving others, and celebration complement, rather than substitute for, humans’ creative work in and outside of markets; the Sabbath frees us from being slaves to work, but this does not mean that work becomes uncreative or unfulfilling, or that growth must stop.
The Sabbath principle institutionalized for Israel in the Sabbath year debt release and Jubilee law is in our view aimed particularly to benefit the poor, who are to have their debts cancelled after seven years (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). There is to be generosity, not economic ill will, shown towards the poor by lending to them even if the seventh year debt release time is near. The Law of Jubilee secures the return of the land at the end of fifty years to every Israelite family if it has been transferred from them. The ones receiving the land do not purchase it so much as lease it, for the debt owed by the poor person is repaid by the crop yield.25 The economic implication of the Sabbath principle here is the return of a key resource needed to maintain that particular family’s livelihood and participation in the stewardship activity that is needed for economic growth.26
The Sabbath year debt release and Jubilee law embody the principle that we are not to cling possessively to God’s creation nor take advantage of others with its use. We are not the ultimate owners of resources, yet we are sustained by God with them and provided opportunities to bring value added in using them productively. In contemporary societies, we are persuaded that the best outworking of the Jubilee principle is not about redistribution per se but about assuring that all members of society have access to the human capital—education and skills—that is now the basis for most wealth accumulation.27
A salient example of productive stewardship is the godly wife described in Proverbs’ culminating chapter. She epitomizes all that is good about creativity, entrepreneurship, exchange, and Sabbath-keeping grounded in faith. She is creative with all the resources with which her family is endowed. She takes the initiative to combine resources to generate value-added. She has freedom in exercising her labor, for she does not face oppressive burdens that limit her enterprise or arbitrarily capture from her the wealth she acquires. She is enabled to be generous to the poor (31:20) and to care for her family. There is creativity to be expressed in business enterprise, and at the same time responsibility to create value that matters as a good steward mindful of her community as well as of her family.28 Likewise, we too are called to exercise wisdom and creativity in all spheres of life, be it in the for-profit or not-for-profit realms, or in our family’s economic activities. Pursuing this godly call leads directly to creative entrepreneurship and to growth.29
To sum up our argument thus far, a modern Christian case for economic growth is grounded in biblical values affirming the goodness of the material world, creativity, the Imago Dei, the dignity of labor and rest, and the exercise of economic freedoms in stewardship guided by wisdom in risk-taking. Such values embody a vision of human flourishing as being sustained in part by generating value-added in the stewardship task. What flows from the application of these values to the question of economic growth is a perspective that has deeply influenced the uniquely positive Judeo-Christian worldview on wealth creation as compared to other religions. The affirmations found in Genesis 1 suggest that prosperity, honestly obtained, is good—though it should neither be expected from, nor seen as a mark of, faith. Material well-being that is the result of the exercise of stewardship and is manifested in value-added through human creativity, entrepreneurship and labor, should be celebrated—while never idolizing economic growth and wealth creation. Growth is not desirable because it guarantees happiness.30 Rather, it is the good and valuable fruit of creative labor. In poor and rich countries alike, economic growth expresses improved well-being that honors the Imago Dei in humankind.
Objections to Growth
We now consider two of the most prominent critiques of growth: environmental unsustainability, and its harmful moral consequences. Critics also argue, among other things, that growth generates invidious income inequalities, and that true human material needs (not wants) can be satisfied without permanent economic growth.31 Despite their importance, treating these critiques is beyond the scope of this paper.32
…Growth is bumping against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that continuing to expand the economy may be impossible, the very attempt may be dangerous.33
The specific resource depletion fears of the “limits to growth” literature of the 1960s and 1970s, echoed in Bill McKibben’s statement above about “peak oil,” have not come to pass.34 But environmental concerns with growth have, if anything, intensified since that time. They focus now on the possible effects of catastrophic global warming and other kinds of irreversible environmental damage (such as loss of biodiversity) associated with economic activity. To assess these arguments and, in particular, to bring both economic analysis and Christian theological analysis to bear on them, we consider the work of environmentalist Bill McKibben and theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger.
Their concerns go beyond worries about running out of specific resources such as oil. Their concern, rather, is the “deep economy” problem (McKibben’s term) of the inexorable rise in embedded energy use and the eroding ability of nature to provide its essential services as consumption rises. They identify consumption—materialistically driven in a consumer-oriented global economy—as a key cause of environmental damage. They regard global warming as a symptom of the economy’s collision with invisible but real barriers, and believe that the best way to fight it and other environmental problems is to create a new cultural and religious ethic of environmental care that eschews growth and reduces consumption in the name of sustainability.35 Care for creation needs to move to the center of human consciousness, and take a place superior to the “goods” of economic life, such as growth and material prosperity, that have hitherto held sway. Bouma-Prediger expresses this as cultivating the virtues of material “self-restraint and frugality,” cornerstones of the “ecological virtues” that Christians should promote.36 Other Christians put it more bluntly: we must face up to the “ecological wreckage that can only be limited or repaired by cessation of growth.”37
These arguments have empirical and theological dimensions that are important to distinguish from one another. Theologically, Bouma-Prediger’s concerns—care for the earth, humility, and personal frugality for the sake of wider purposes—are at the heart of orthodox Christian thinking without going to either extreme of holding that creation is inviolable or disposable. The theological vision he sketches could inform Christian environmental ethics of any era.
But is consumption-driven growth actually the enemy of the environment? Are environmental care and a high and rising material standard of living incompatible with one another? We argue that, however counter-intuitive it may seem, the answer is “no” to both questions.
Consider first the former question, the relation between income growth and the level of pollution and environmental stress. Growth provides resources to address both environmental improvement and human well-being. Particularly when growth emerges in a democratic market system, valuable innovation and technological change are encouraged, so that growth generates the resources that pay for environmental care. That is, growth funds the costs of achieving emissions reductions. Growth also can help pay the expensive costs of environmental remediation of previous generations’ pollution. With close to 1,400 Superfund sites identified in the United States alone, global remediation and cleanup are massive undertakings that richer societies will be more willing to undertake than poorer ones.38
In fact, policy solutions to the many instances of pollution and environmental damage that result from externalities and common pool resource problems are well known, relatively easy to implement, and need not be growth-killers.39 A set of wisely-designed taxes on, and emission standards for, pollution can solve one whole set of externality problems. Local, state, and national policies on packaging, recycling, composting, and hazardous trash disposal can deal efficiently with another large set of externalities. Common pool resource problems can be addressed effectively with a combination of property rights, norms, private negotiation, taxes, and government regulation. Wealthy democratic societies have a track record of being willing to design and pay for these kinds of solutions, and to pay for innovative, less-polluting products and production processes that further ameliorate environmental damage. This is why in the United States and much of the rest of the wealthy world the air and water are dramatically cleaner now than they were half a century ago.40
In this view, the key difficulty of environmental regulation and amelioration is the prudential weighing of how such actions may affect other social goods such as income growth and consumption. The more stringent the environmental regulation, the more costly its implementation in terms of lost jobs, closed firms, and higher prices for goods and services. In Christian ethical terms, these are competing norms: care for the environment is good, but the prosperity and material well-being of the human community are good, too. Stewardship involves balancing these competing ends.
Twenty-first-century global warming presents a more complex environmental challenge than those discussed above. It is best understood as a global common pool resource problem: higher absolute levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, regardless of source, raise the globe’s temperature with potentially large adverse effects. The policy response, therefore, also needs to be global: any one country that dramatically reduced its greenhouse gas emissions would incur great expense but experience virtually no benefit unless enough other countries cut their emissions too.
The politics of engineering significant, shared global reductions in carbon emission are fiendishly difficult, and beyond the scope of this paper. Further, the underlying climatological relationships between carbon emissions, global warming, and the extent and timing of environmental change are punishingly difficult to estimate and radically unreliable. Something as conceptually straightforward as figuring out an optimal global carbon tax—in principle, the ideal economic policy—is difficult to estimate empirically. Wide disagreements ensue, therefore, about what the best global policy should be.41
Yet, as with other environmental problems, higher incomes will assist in addressing greenhouse gas emissions. Richer countries will be more willing and more able to make the investments necessary to transition to renewable energy sources. More research will be funded that finds ways to make nuclear energy safer, to improve battery technology for storing renewable energy, and for ameliorating the environmental costs of wind and hydropower.
We turn, finally, to consider the (first-mentioned) environmental critique of consumption as a key driver of economic growth and therefore of environmental damage. It leads many critics to conclude that consumption must dramatically be reined in, and that the ensuing growth slowdown would not only be ethically right but also would be the very means of doing the right thing for the environment.42 These critics tend to write about consumption quite narrowly as if it is intrinsically morally problematic, consisting of wasteful purchases of physical goods. Bouma-Prediger offers a typical statement of this view:
…Our way of life ought not revolve around the constant quest for more stuff. Christians most of all ought to question whether consumeristic materialism is worthy of allegiance. Given the God we serve, can we justify a way of life predicated on the inordinate desire for that which moth and rust consume?43
But this argument misjudges the nature of much contemporary consumption, and it is not in fact self-evident that consumption is a moral problem. It is surely a good thing when poorer countries grow and households can afford to cook their meals with natural gas rather than cow dung, or to send their daughters to school rather than into back-breaking unpaid paddy work. But these valuable expenditures raise consumption as measured in national statistics. Nor do we find it inherently problematic when consumption rises absolutely or as a share of GDP in richer countries. Here, increased consumption usually represents increased use of all kinds of important services such as health care and expensive cures, travel, education, social media and entertainment, and living space.44 The crucial point is that households’ “consumption” does not largely consist of cheap manufactured goods. It consists of purchases of services, services that are truly “goods.” When countries can provide more of them—and when wealthy countries have the financial and skilled specialist resources to invent more of them—the world really is better off. Consumption growth, as actually experienced in the real world of richer and poorer economies, is good.
For Christians, recognizing the merits of consumption is an act of recovering our understanding that the material world is good. Here it is important to distinguish these benefits from the problems associated with consumerism. We affirm the historic Christian warnings about clinging to material possessions (and gladly join Bouma-Prediger’s condemnation of consumeristic materialism). The Church has rightly sounded this theme for thousands of years, with concerns about acquisitiveness and caveats about wealth accumulation that predate the rise of modern capitalism.45 At the same time, we affirm the need to encourage Christians’ moral and economic imaginations to be able to see the real promise that growth and life-enhancing consumption hold for the world. And we need to guard against too quickly yielding the moral benefits of growth in favor of other social goods. It is essential to pursue wise policies and well-crafted environmental regulation to deal with growth’s negative effects on the environment. But it is important also to highlight the moral good that comes with economic growth (even growth powered by fossil fuels!). In Christian theological terms, the growth in material prosperity of the past two-and-a-half centuries is legitimate and good, for richer and poorer countries alike. It should not be given up hastily.
Morality and Community
Capitalism…has exalted some of the most reviled human characteristics, such as greed, envy and avarice[;]…the present system relies on motives of greed and acquisitiveness, which are morally repugnant…46
The market system has reliably generated growth for countries that have been willing to adopt it to even a modest degree. But its moral character remains deeply suspect. Christian thinkers are prominent in arguing that in ways large and small the corrosive effect of markets on morality and community vitiate the benefits of growth.47
A synthesis of these views runs as follows: First and foremost, markets directly promote greedy and immoral behavior by allowing it and letting people profit from it. Markets encourage individuals to think of transactions involving goods, services, customers, and hires as, well, “transactions”—commodified relationships, occasions for extracting gain from others—when in Christian terms such exchanges are, at bottom, relationships of love and gift, and should be treated as such.
The implications of this basic view are far-reaching. Producers have an incentive to stoke consumer demand by advertising and glamorizing consumption. Indeed, the pursuit of economic growth is said to encourage the problem of too many, not too few, choices offered to potential consumers.48 The result is that households whose actual unmet needs are small nevertheless may perceive that they live in scarcity, with many unfilled wants and desires, despite the manifest abundance they enjoy day-to-day. Scarcity, in this view, is not a fundamental constraint on economic behavior to anything like the extent that economic theory portrays.49
Another component of this point of view is the conviction that transactions in local communities are to be preferred over transactions at a distance facilitated by multinational firms and global economic exchange. Local transactions allow economic relationships to be personal and accountable. They give people a sense of rootedness and connection to the environmental realities of their local ecosystem, and are the basis of stable multi-generation family relationships.
From a Christian theological view there is much that is valuable here. Christians are called to be generous, not closed-handed, with material resources; to not trust in wealth, but in God; and to treat others with dignity and honor, always—virtues that are indeed tested in market systems (and, arguably, in any economic system). But many responses are possible to the wider claims of these critics. It can be argued that markets are not entirely devoid of ethics; the virtues of honesty, fair dealing and respect are often instrumentally valuable in securing profits, especially over the long run. Further, the material prosperity brought by the growth that arises naturally in market systems is valuable. Proponents of an economy of gift, which modern theologians often offer as an alternative to growth-oriented market economies,50 fail to recognize that in all market exchanges there in fact is an element of gift. When resources or products move toward high-value uses from lower-value uses in the course of market transactions, buyers, as receivers, obtain more value in buying the resource/product than in not purchasing it. At the same time sellers gain more value in receiving payment than in holding onto the resource/product. Through voluntary exchange the benefits of economic growth are disseminated. Even more problematic, critics virtually all fail to consider how goods are to be produced in a gift economy and who decides what goods should be produced.
But our main response to these critiques is based on the theological considerations addressed earlier. The freedoms and property protections inherent in market economic systems should be understood as intrinsic, not instrumental, goods. They allow individuals and families to have agency and to exercise stewardship in day-to-day and in long-term decisions. They encourage work and creativity, which also are intrinsic goods from a Christian theological point of view. Above all, in a market system individuals and families are free to act as virtuously and with as little regard for the pure profit motive as they wish—while market prices require them, justly, to take into consideration the real opportunity costs to others of the resources they want to use. Critics who hope to reduce greed and materialism by slowing growth and moving away from a market system are misjudging the fundamental sources of these human vices, which would be present in any human system. Constraints on envy and greed emerge from teaching individuals to pursue a strongly moral path: raising people from childhood in healthy cultures that encourage faith and virtue, a foundational, civilization-building task that families and the church are well suited to continue.
Conclusion: Growth and the Moral/Cultural Order
Economic growth, in our theological view, is both an intrinsic and instrumental good. It is instrumental, in the sense that it generates resources for all kinds of social goods—the technological change on which environmental restoration depends, wider access to and improvements in medical care, more education, and so on. We concur with Michael Novak, who recognized one aspect of the instrumental benefits of growth. His tripartite vision for democratic capitalism, characterized by the features of economic, political, and moral/cultural order, emphasizes that “democratic polities” depend upon a “sense of equal opportunity,” a “belief that can be realized only under conditions of economic growth.”51
Growth is also an instrumental good in that there is a significant positive connection, in market economies, between growth and moral characteristics such as social trust, honesty, compassion, and taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family. These economies both depend on these values and help to generate them. Where economic growth is stymied, envy and uncharitable behavior spread. We concur with Friedman52 that increasing economic growth is often associated with a decrease in racial intolerance and general social prejudices. Indeed, we suggest that growth offers greater economic mobility and opportunity for those long hindered by social constraints, as evidenced by the modern ongoing breakdown of caste barriers in India. These kinds of positive moral consequences of growth are in accord with the value of impartiality that is grounded in God’s character (Romans 2:11) and is to be exhibited by Christians towards all, regardless of income level (James 2:8-9). Moreover, because economic growth is a fruit of specialization, it flows from the collaborative efforts of people with widely differing racial and ethnic backgrounds through impersonal exchange. As noted previously, the “gifts” of market economies entail production and distribution through exchange, which in turn rely on social trust and responsibility.
Yet growth is also an intrinsic good, in that it is the natural and desirable outcome of an economic system properly and wisely constructed to welcome and encourage creative work. Any economic system bears the burden of operating in a world marred by sin, but an economy that facilitates the full expression of our being made in the image of God will invariably exhibit growth.
Novak argued that a healthy moral/cultural order is essential for holding markets and democratic government accountable to the common good and true human flourishing. In a similar way, we argue that the character of the moral/cultural order is crucial to shaping a vision for growth that affirms its morality but constrains it from serving pure materialist ends. That culture should form and anchor our ability to act virtuously in markets and use their freedoms responsibly, to hold wealth lightly and with compassion for all, and to not be slaves to work. For Christians in the current era, it is particularly important that we influence culture in ways that promote human dignity so as to put humane boundaries on technological change. In short, the moral/cultural order is a key bulwark against forgetting God.
As Christian economists we recognize that economic growth alone is not sufficient for the flourishing of creatures made in God’s image. The Christian vision of the “good life” intended by the Creator inherently involves generosity that stems from affluence—a relational enrichment that goes beyond the material, yet also flows into charity towards others, particularly those at the economic margins.53
At the same time we affirm that the pursuit of growth is morally legitimate and essential for human flourishing. Arbitrarily restraining growth is not the best way to address the world’s environmental and moral problems. Growth is, rather, the happy companion of the free play of work and creativity in society. Policy should welcome and encourage it. Christians should welcome and encourage it with clear eyes and clean consciences.
Cite this article
- Because the act of production entails paying workers and owners of land, machines, and buildings, the value of a nation’s output averaged over all residents is typically the same as income per person. Therefore growth can be discussed as either income or output growth. The strengths and weaknesses of using GDP as an indicator of material progress are well-known and widely discussed; see, for instance, Edd S. Noell, Stephen L. S. Smith, and Bruce Webb, Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human Flourishing (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2013).
- The figures for the United States are the authors’ calculations based on real per capita GDP in 2012 dollars, available at https://fred.stlouisfed.org, series A939RX0Q048SBEA; the specific figure is 4.03, from the end of 1946 through September 2018. The figures for China reflect the World Bank’s $1.90 per day absolute poverty standard, in 2011 dollars adjusted for purchasing power across countries (World Bank Poverty and Equity Data Base, available at https://datacatalog.worldbank.org/dataset/poverty-and-equity-database; accessed October 27, 2018).
- New growth theories considering positive externalities from education and technological change are surveyed in Charles I. Jones and Dietrich Vollrath, Introduction to Economic Growth, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 2013). Lessons from history and current development economics can be found in Eric Jones, Growth Recurring: Economic Change in World History, 2nd ed. (Dearborn: University of Michigan Press, 2000); William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). China and India’s recent growth is treated in Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries (New York: Public Affairs, 2013); Barry Naughton, The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018). New institutional and rent-seeking approaches are offered by Douglass C. North and Robert Paul Thomas, The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976); Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Business, 2012). The role of cultural ideas is the focus of Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), and Deirdre McCloskey’s three volumes address rhetorical/ethical change: The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); and Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
- Herman Daly and John Cobb, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994); Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (New York: Times Books, 2007); Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision of Creation Care, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010).
- Bob Goudzwaard, “Economic Growth: Is More Always Better?,” in Economic Justice in a Flat World: Christian Perspectives on Globalization, ed. Steven Rundle (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Press, 2009), 336; see also Bob Goudzwaard, Globalization and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001); William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008); Daniel M. Bell, Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012); Jonathan R. Wilson, God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).
- Eugene McCarraher, “Love is Stronger than Debt: Against Chrapitalism,” Books & Culture (May/June 2013), https://thelittleredblog.typepad.com/blog/2013/04/chrapitalism-vs-the-peoples-republic-of-heaven.html; Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (New York: Other Press, 2012).
- Herman Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
- Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 6th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015).
- E. Calvin Beisner, Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1990).
- John R. Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
- Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1982); Robert Sirico, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2012).
- Arthur Brooks, The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise (New York: Basic Books, 2012); Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).
- Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005); Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Press, 2000).
- Peter J. Hill and John Lunn, “Markets and Morality: Things Ethicists Should Consider When Evaluating Market Exchange,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35.4 (2007): 627-653; J. David Richardson and Jamie Smith, “Economists, Theologians and Globalization: An Exchange,” Faith & Economics 56 (Fall 2010): 5-59; John Lunn, “Capitalism as Heresy: On Why Theologians Criticize Markets,” Faith & Economics 57 (Spring 2011): 1-23.
- Many secular arguments about the merits of growth are correct, in our view. In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Friedman points to the ethnic and social toleration that typically comes with growth. Paul Collier summarizes a decade of empirical work that points to the contribution of low growth to coups and poverty traps in the poorest countries, in The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
- This does not mean that humans become “co-Creators.” Clearly, only God fashions the material world out of nothing. Yet God calls us to take the resources of his creation and combine them (and recombine them) to insure that the earth yields its bounty.
- Brent Waters is on target here in describing the connection between stewardship and the value issuing from productive activity: “Effort is needed to transform creation’s resources into housing, clothing, food, health care, and an array of other goods and services that enhance physical well-being and comfort. Stewardship, then, is most basically undertaking action designed to foster human flourishing” (Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016], 111).
- Christians traditionally understand the person of “wisdom” in Proverbs 8 who participates with God the Father in creating as Christ, adding a poignant saliency to Jesus’s earthly work as a tekton and underscoring the potential goodness on earth of human acts of creation.
- Genesis 4:2 states, “Abel worked flocks, and Cain kept the soil.”
- Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, Modern Principles: Microeconomics, 4th ed. (New York: Worth, 2018), 14.
- This is, of course, the concept of comparative advantage/disadvantage, where the cost of making anything is its opportunity cost, the value of what must be given up in order to make it.
- Readers will have noticed that for entrepreneurship, specialization and exchange to work as we have fleshed out, society needs property rights, the rule of law, a state at least powerful enough to supply those, and essential public goods including national defense, and, through the state and civil society, a social safety net. These are all important topics in their own right and beyond the scope of this paper.
- For instance, Ched Myers argues that “Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit.” Ched Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2000), 13.
- A recent example comes from William Black: “…the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive—the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough—the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough.” William R. Black, “Let’s Bring Back the Sabbath as a Radical Act against ‘Total Work’,” Aeon, September 14, 2018, available at https://aeon.co/ideas/lets-bring-back-the-sabbath-as-a-radical-act-against-total-work.
- Art Lindsley, “Is Capitalism Contrary to the Bible?” in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, ed. Art Lindsley and Anne R. Bradley (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017), 61-88.
- Kurt Schaefer and Edd Noell (“Contract Theory, Distributive Justice, and the Hebrew Sabbatical,” Faith & Economics 45 : 1-19) emphasize that the equitable thrust of the Jubilee regulations limits the likelihood of extreme poverty in Israel by maintaining equal access to resources, particularly to meet the needs of the most economically vulnerable. They add, “Even with equal access, the reality remains that fields must be gleaned and the land must be worked if it is to yield income” (7).
- Myers argues for wealth redistribution, John Mason and Kurt Schaefer (1990) for human capital. Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics; John Mason and Kurt Schaefer, “The Bible, the State, and the Economy: A Framework for Analysis,” Christian Scholars Review 20.1 (September 1990): 45-64.
- For an extended treatment of this passage that addresses the good wife as creative entrepreneur, see Jeffrey E. Haymond, “The Proverbs 31 Woman: Entrepreneurial Epitome?” Faith & Economics 60 (Fall 2012): 1-16.
- In recent decades economists have come to understand that such entrepreneurship is vital to economic growth. Entrepreneurs, bearers of the divine image, pursue the flourishing associated with productive stewardship by creatively acting on their particular knowledge, insights, and wisdom in order to uncover opportunities for possible economic and non-economic gain. Wealth and jobs are created by taking resources with lesser value and converting them into products or services with greater value, or by moving resources from lower-valued uses to higher-valued uses. See Edmund Phelps, Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); David Audretsch, Max Keilbach, and Erik Lehmann, Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Zoltan Acs, “How is Entrepreneurship Good for Economic Growth?,” Innovations: Technology, Governance and Globalization 1.1 (Winter 2006): 97-107; and Randall G. Holcombe, “Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth,” in Making Poor Nations Rich: Entrepreneurship and the Process of Economic Development, ed. Benjamin Powell (Stanford, CA: Stanford Economics and Finance, 2008), 54-78.
- Though, generally, subjective well-being tends to rise with income; see Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 39.1 (Spring 2008): 1-102.
- This latter critique is most closely associated with Skidelsky and Skidelsky, How Much is Enough?
- Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (New York: Times Books, 2007), 1-2.
- For classic “limits to growth” arguments, see Lester Brown, In the Human Interest: A Strategy to Stabilize World Population (New York: Norton, 1974); Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968); and Donella H. Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972). For mainstream economic assessments, see Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Bjorn Lomborg, “Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2012), 24-40.
- McKibben makes this case in chapter 1 of Deep Economy; Bouma-Prediger explores it in For the Beauty of the Earth, 23-55, and 155-173.
- Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth, 131-132.
- McCarraher, “Love is Stronger than Debt.”
- For instance, the multi-year cleanup of PCBs from a forty-mile stretch of the Hudson River, ending in 2015, cost more than $2 billion. Note that this is emphatically not an argument to “get dirty first, then clean up;” PCBs were banned in manufacturing in 1979. What matters now is being able to afford a comprehensive cleanup.
- Negative environmental externalities exist when governments, firms, or households can engage in activities that harm the environment without being required to take that damage into account. A common pool resource, such as a stock of fish in a lake, will be endangered by over-use, a concept that economists call “the tragedy of the commons.” The former problem is epitomized in the popular imagination by Disney’s Wall-E, in which a cute robot tries to clean up a trash-choked earth abandoned by humans. Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax (New York: Random House, 1971) presents a clear story of the latter type of problem.
- This phenomenon is sometimes called the environmental Kuznets curve (or EKC): emissions per capita of a pollutant rise in the early stages of growth, but fall after a certain income level is reached such that a population is willing to pay for emissions controls. This is not an economic law as much as it is a regularity in the behavior of democratic capitalist societies. See Susmita Dasgupta, Benoit Laplante, Hua Wang, and David Wheeler, “Confronting the Environmental Kuznets Curve,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 16.1 (Winter 2002): 147-168; and Kenneth P. Green, “Why Growth is the Environment’s Best Friend,” The American (November 7, 2012), http://www.aei.org/publication/why-growth-is-the-environments-best-friend/. A case for economic growth leading to greater diversity of species is offered in The Economist’s 2013 special report, “The Long View: The Effects of Growth” (https://www.economist.com/special-report/2013/09/13/the-long-view).
- A global carbon tax would directly target the source of the problem, carbon use, at a global scale. Shifting to fossil fuels such as natural gas that are less carbon-intensive, and reviving nuclear energy as well as renewable energy sources, also make sense as policy targets, and market forces can assist these transitions.
- An example: McKibben’s Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families, which is an extended argument that the damage from consumption and economic growth is best countered by reducing the global population through a new “cultural norm” (204) favoring single-child families. McKibben writes, “…the perpetual expansion in the size of our economies is at least as damaging as the expansion of our populations. If they can be stabilized in tandem, so much the better. A ‘global readjustment’ of our economies, our expectations, is probably in order—sooner or later, our ceaseless growth will have to stop” (140).
- Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth, 161.
- These categories of spending make up the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s “services” section of personal consumption expenditure, and have risen from a 40 percent share in 1959 to 69 percent in 2018, reflecting households’ eagerness to spend in these ways as incomes have risen. (The 1959 figure is from Larry R. Moran and Clinton P. McCully, “Trends in Consumer Spending, 1959-2000,” Survey of Current Business 83 (March 2001); the 2018 figure is from Bureau of Economic Analysis Table 2.3.5U, Personal Consumption Expenditures by Major Type of Product and by Major Function, released August 29, 2018 and available at bea.gov).
- Edd Noell, “Capitalism and Consumerism: Delighting in Both Creation and the Responsi- bilities of Affluence,” in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, ed. Art Lindsley and Anne R. Bradley (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017), 241-275.
- Skidelsky and Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough?, 3-5.
- See, among many others, McCarraher, “Love is Stronger than Debt”; Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire; Bell, The Economy of Desire; and Wendell Berry, “The Idea of a Local Economy,” Harper’s Magazine, April 2002, 15-20.
- Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).
- Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, 89-100.
- Wilson, God’s Good World; Kathryn Tanner, Economy of Grace (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005).
- Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 15. Novak’s emphasis on the instrumental benefits of “sustained growth” associated with market economies (36) offers a significant initial contribution to Christian thinking on this subject. Yet the main thrust of his work contrasts the spiritual underpinnings of capitalism with those of socialism, and does not take up the specific case for economic growth in the form we make here.
- Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.
- For further development of these ideas, see Waters, Just Capitalism.