What’s the dominant religion of the past 100 years? The answer isn’t Christianity with its 2.1 billion followers, or Islam with its 1.3 billion. It’s the idea of economic growth, the Church of GDP. Countless countries have embraced rapid growth as a cure to their ills. Getting richer is now an almost universal craving. And yet the worship of growth inspires enormous ambivalence. It is widely seen — especially in already wealthy societies — as morally corrupting: the mindless pursuit of empty materialism (do flat-panel TVs really make us better off?) that drains life of spiritual meaning and also wrecks the environment.
Exactly wrong, says Benjamin Friedman.
Friedman, a Harvard economist, has written a hugely provocative book (“The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth”) arguing that rapid growth is morally uplifting. “Economic growth — meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens — more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy,” he writes. Further, the opposite is true. Poor growth feeds prejudice, class conflict and antidemocratic tendencies.