The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

by Benjamin M. Friedman

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From the author of Day of Reckoning, the acclaimed critique of Ronald Reagan’s economic policy (“Every citizen should read it,” said The New York Times): a persuasive, wide-ranging argument that economic growth provides far more than material benefits.

In clear-cut prose, Benjamin M. Friedman examines the political and social histories of the large Western democracies–particularly of the United States since the Civil War–to demonstrate the fact that incomes on the rise lead to more open and democratic societies. He explains that growth, rather than simply a high standard of living, is key to effecting political and social liberalization in the third world, and shows that even the wealthiest of nations puts its democratic values at risk when income levels stand still. Merely being rich is no protection against a turn toward rigidity and intolerance when a country’s citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.

With concrete policy suggestions for pursuing growth at home and promoting worldwide economic expansion, this volume is a major contribution to the ongoing debate about the effects of economic growth and globalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307773456
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/03/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 554,393
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Benjamin M. Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy and former chairman of the department of economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1972. The author of several scholarly works; his first trade book, Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy Under Reagan and After, was awarded the George S. Eccles Prize, awarded annually by Columbia University for excellence in writing about economics. A former investment banker, he has consulted for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and individual Federal Reserve banks. He has worked with the National Bureau of Economic Research, the National Science Foundation Subcommittee on Economics, and the Congressional Budget Office. Professor Friedman has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Review of Books.

Read an Excerpt

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

By Benjamin M. Friedman


Copyright © 2006

Benjamin M. Friedman

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-679-44891-8

Chapter One

What Growth Is, What Growth Does

Economic growth has become the secular religion of advancing industrial
-DANIEL BELL The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

Are we right to care so much about economic growth as we clearly do?

For citizens of all too many of the world's countries, where poverty is still
the norm, the answer is immediate and obvious. But the tangible improvements in
the basics of life that make economic growth so important whenever living
standards are low-greater life expectancy, fewer diseases, less infant
mortality and malnutrition-have mostly played out long before a country's per
capita income reaches the levels enjoyed in today's advanced industrialized
economies. Americans are no healthier than Koreans or Portuguese, for example,
and we live no longer, despite an average income more than twice what they have.
Yet whether our standard of living will continue to improve, and how fast,
remain matters of acute concern for us nonetheless.

At the same time, perhaps because we are never clear about just why we attach so
much importance to economic growth in the first place, we are often at
cross-purposes-at times we seem to be almost embarrassed-about what we want.
We not only acknowledge other values; as a matter ofprinciple we place them on
a higher plane than our material well-being. Even in parts of the world where
the need to improve nutrition and literacy and human life expectancy is urgent,
there is often a grudging aspect to the recognition that achieving superior
growth is a top priority. As a result, especially when faster growth would
require sacrifice from entrenched constituencies with well-established
interests, the political process often fails to muster the determination to
press forward. The all too frequent outcome, in low- and high-income countries
alike, is economic disappointment, and in some cases outright stagnation.

The root of the problem, I believe, is that our conventional thinking about
economic growth fails to reflect the breadth of what growth, or its absence,
means for a society. We recognize, of course, the advantages of a higher
material standard of living, and we appreciate them. But moral thinking, in
practically every known culture, enjoins us not to place undue emphasis on our
material concerns. We are also increasingly aware that economic
development-industrialization in particular, and more recently
globalization-often brings undesirable side effects, like damage to the
environment or the homogenization of what used to be distinctive cultures, and
we have come to regard these matters too in moral terms. On both counts, we
therefore think of economic growth in terms of material considerations versus
moral ones: Do we have the right to burden future generations, or even other
species, for our own material advantage? Will the emphasis we place on growth,
or the actions we take to achieve it, compromise our moral integrity? We weigh
material positives against moral negatives.

I believe this thinking is seriously, in some circumstances dangerously,
incomplete. The value of a rising standard of living lies not just in the
concrete improvements it brings to how individuals live but in how it shapes the
social, political, and ultimately the moral character of a people.

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.
Ever since the Enlightenment, Western thinking has regarded each of these
tendencies positively, and in explicitly moral terms.

Even societies that have already made great advances in these very dimensions,
for example most of today's Western democracies, are more likely to make still
further progress when their living standards rise. But when living standards
stagnate or decline, most societies make little if any progress toward any of
these goals, and in all too many instances they plainly retrogress. As we shall
see, many countries with highly developed economies, including America, have
experienced alternating eras of economic growth and stagnation in which their
democratic values have strengthened or weakened accordingly.

How the citizens of any country think about economic growth, and what actions
they take in consequence, is therefore a matter of far broader importance than
we conventionally assume. In many countries today, even the most basic qualities
of any society-democracy or dictatorship, tolerance or ethnic hatred and
violence, widespread opportunity or economic oligarchy-remain in flux. In some
countries where there is now a democracy, it is still new and therefore fragile.
Because of the link between rising or falling living standards and just these
aspects of social and political development, the absence of growth in so many of
what we usually call "developing economies," even though many of them are not
actually developing, threatens their prospects in ways that standard measures of
national income do not even suggest. But the same concern applies, albeit in a
more subtle way, to mature democracies as well.

Even in America, I believe, the quality of our democracy-more fundamentally,
the moral character of American society-is similarly at risk. The central
economic question for the United States at the outset of the twenty-first
century is whether the nation in the generation ahead will again achieve
increasing prosperity, as in the decades immediately following World War II, or
lapse back into the stagnation of living standards for the majority of our
citizens that persisted from the early 1970s until the early 1990s. And the more
important question that then follows is how these different economic paths would
affect our democratic political institutions and the broader character of our
society. As the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron once observed, "even a
long democratic history does not necessarily immunize a country from becoming a
'democracy without democrats.'" And as we shall see from our own experience as
well as that of other countries, merely being rich is no bar to a society's
retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens lose the sense
that they are getting ahead.

The familiar balancing of material positives against moral negatives when we
discuss economic growth is therefore a false choice, and the parallel
assumption, that how we value material versus moral concerns neatly maps into
whether we should eagerly embrace economic growth or temper our enthusiasm for
it, is wrong as well. Economic growth bears moral benefits as well, and when we
debate the often hard decisions that inevitably arise-in choosing economic
policies that either encourage growth or retard it, and even in our reactions to
the growth that takes place apart from the push or pull of public policy-it is
important that we take these moral positives into account.

Especially in a work focused on the positive link between economic growth and
social and political progress, it may seem strange to think that America, now so
preeminent across the world in economic terms, faces any significant threat in
this regard. One country after another-including even China and Singapore,
which thus far have hesitated to liberalize politically-has adopted American
approaches to the management of its economy, based on free enterprise, private
initiative, and mobile capital. Why would ongoing economic growth not therefore
herald an era of further social and political progress that would reinforce the
openness of American society and otherwise strengthen and broaden American

One concern is simply that the robust growth of the latter half of the 1990s may
prove to have been only a temporary interlude, a "bubble" as many disappointed
stock market investors now regard it, between the stagnation that dominated most
of the final quarter of the twentieth century and further stagnation yet to
come. But even the prosperity that America experienced in the late 1990s
bypassed large parts, in some important dimensions a clear majority, of the
country's citizens. Jobs were plentiful, but too many provided poor wages,
little if any training, and no opportunity for advancement.

Economic progress needs to be broadly based if it is to foster social and
political progress. That progress requires the positive experience of a
sufficiently broad cross section of a country's population to shape the national
mood and direction. But except for a brief period in the late 1990s, most of the
fruits of the last three decades of economic growth in the United States have
accrued to only a small slice of the American population. Nor was that short
period of more widespread prosperity sufficient to allow most American families
to make up for the economic stagnation or outright decline they endured during
previous years. After allowing for higher prices, the average worker in American
business in 2004 made 16 percent less each week than thirty-plus years
earlier. For most Americans, the reward for work today is well below what it used
to be.

With more and more two-earner households, and more individuals holding two jobs,
most families' incomes have more than held their ground. But nearly all of the
gain realized over these last three decades came only in the burst of strong
growth in the late 1990s. Despite mostly low unemployment, and some modest
growth in the U.S. gross domestic product-and despite the increased prevalence
of two-earner families and two-job workers-the median family's income made
little gain beyond inflation from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. For fully
two decades most Americans were not getting ahead economically, and many of
those who did were increasingly hard-pressed to keep up even their meager
progress. This was not the kind of broadly based increase in living standards
that we normally conceive as "economic growth."

Even for many families in the country's large middle-class majority, economic
prospects have become increasingly precarious in recent decades. Young men
entering the American job force in the 1970s started off their working careers
earning two-thirds more, on average, than what their fathers' generation had
made starting out in the 1950s. By the early 1990s young workers were starting
out at one-fourth less than what their parents' generation had earned.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even as they expressed confidence that the
U.S. economy would continue to expand, throughout this period Americans in
record numbers also said they had no sense of getting ahead personally and that
they feared for their children's financial future. Even in the late 1990s, with
the surge in both the economy and the stock market in full bloom, more than half
of all Americans surveyed said they agreed that "The American dream has become
impossible for most people to achieve." More than two-thirds said they thought
that goal would become still harder to attain over the next generation.

The disappointment so many Americans felt at failing to achieve greater
advances-and that many feel today-is grounded in hard reality. So is the sense
of many young Americans that their prospects are poor even at times when the
economy is strong. Our citizens applaud the American economy, especially in
years when it prospers, yet even then they fear that the end of the American
dream lies ahead. They do so because in the last generation so many have failed
to experience that dream in their own lives.

The consequence of the stagnation that lasted from the mid-1970s until the
mid-1990s was, in numerous dimensions, a fraying of America's social fabric. It
was no coincidence that during this period popular antipathy to immigrants
resurfaced to an extent not known in the United States since before World War
II, and in some respects not since the 1880s when intense nativism spread in
response to huge immigration at a time of protracted economic distress. It was
not an accident that after three decades of progress toward bringing the
country's African-American minority into the mainstream, public opposition
forced a rolling retreat from affirmative action programs. It was not mere
happenstance that, for a while, white supremacist groups were more active and
visible than at any time since the 1930s, antigovernment private "militias"
flourished as never before, and all the while many of our elected political
leaders were reluctant to criticize such groups publicly even as church
burnings, domestic terrorist attacks, and armed standoffs with law enforcement
authorities regularly made headlines. Nor was it coincidental that the effort to
"end welfare as we know it"-a widely shared goal, albeit for different reasons
among different constituencies-often displayed a vindictive spirit that was
highly uncharacteristic of America in the postwar era.

With the return of economic advance for the majority of Americans in the
mid-1990s, many of these deplorable tendencies began to abate. In the 2000 and
2004 presidential campaigns, for example, neither anti-immigrant rhetoric nor
resistance to affirmative action played anything like the role seen in the
elections in 1996 and especially 1992. While hate groups and anti-government
militias have not disappeared, they have again retreated toward the periphery of
the nation's consciousness. Even so, much of the legacy of those two decades of
stagnation remains. While it has become commonplace to talk of the importance of
"civil society," many thoughtful observers increasingly question the vitality in
today's America of the attitudes and institutions that compose it. Even our
public political discourse has lately lost much of its admittedly sparse
civility, foundering on personal charges, investigations, and reverberating

It would be foolish to pretend that all these disturbing developments were
merely the product of economic forces. Social and political phenomena are
complex, and most have many causes. In the 1960s, for example, conventional
thinking in the United States interpreted the wave of student uprisings on
college campuses across the country as a protest against the Vietnam War. No
doubt it was, in part. That simple view failed, however, to explain why other
countries not involved in Vietnam had much the same experience (in some cases,
for example France, even more so) at just the same time. The political and
social changes that have been underway in America in our era have multiple roots
as well.

But it would be equally foolish to ignore the effects of two decades of economic
stagnation for a majority of the nation's citizens in bringing these changes
about. And it would be complacent not to be concerned now that the economy's
prospects are in question once again. As we shall see, the history of each of
the large Western democracies-America, Britain, France, and Germany-is replete
with instances in which just this kind of turn away from openness and tolerance,
and often the weakening of democratic political institutions, followed in the
wake of economic stagnation that diminished people's confidence in a better
future. In many parts of Europe, the social and political consequences of the
transition from the postwar economic miracle to today's nagging "Eurosclerosis"
are all too evident.

In some eras, both in our own history and in that of these other countries,
episodes of rigidity and intolerance have been much more intense and have borne
far more serious consequences than anything we have seen recently. But then some
past eras of stagnation or retreat in living standards have been much more
pronounced as well. At the same time, periods of economic expansion in America
and elsewhere, during which most citizens had reason to be optimistic, have also
witnessed greater openness, tolerance, and democracy. To repeat: such advances
occur for many reasons. But the effect of economic growth versus stagnation is
an important and often central part of the story.


Excerpted from The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth
by Benjamin M. Friedman
Copyright © 2006 by Benjamin M. Friedman.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1. What Growth Is, What Growth Does
2. Perspectives from the Englightenment and Its Roots
3. Crosscurrent: The Age of Improvement and Beyond
4. Rising Incomes, Individual Attitudes, and the Politics of Social Change


5. From Horotio Alger to William Jennings Bryan
6. From TR to FDR
7. Great Depression, Great Expectation
8. America in the Postwar Era


9. Britain
10. France
11. Germany


12. Economics and Politics in the Developing World
13. Virtuous Circles, Vicious Cycles
14. Growth and Equality
15. Growth and the Environment


16. Economic Policy and Economic Growth in America


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“An impressive work: commanding, insistent and meticulously researched.” –The New York Times Book Review“Hugely provocative.” –The Washington Post“A major work. . . . This kind of reasoned analysis is precisely what is necessary to put the United States back on the right track.” –Foreign Affairs“Absorbing. . . . A thorough, historically detailed, accessible exploration.” –The Economist“Friedman has scored a dead-center hit on the critical question: Why do we value economic growth? . . . Provide[s] a new framework and language for discussing economic growth, one that’s useful for economists, politicians, and business leaders alike.” –BusinessWeek“One extreme belief about economic growth is that it is self-evidently its own reward. The opposite extreme is the belief that economic growth is wasteful and dehumanizing. Along comes Ben Friedman to argue calmly, thoroughly and convincingly that rising incomes create an environment favorable to democracy, tolerance and solidarity, while stagnation does the reverse. But government policy matters for the actual outcome, and understanding matters for the choice of policy. This is a strong case, and Friedman lays it out with a wealth of historical and international detail.”–Robert Solow“Benjamin Friedman goes beyond and above the usual run of economic discussion. He is concerned not only with how the economy functions but also with how it serves the common good. The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth will stand as a major contribution to social well-being. It could not be more timely and welcome.”–John Kenneth Galbraith, author of The Affluent Society “Friedman’s book renews the proud tradition of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. He provides a stunning, comprehensive view of economic growth and proposes a positive outlook of its moral consequences. Debatable, yes, but an argument one has to confront in assessing public policy toward globalization and aid to developing countries.”–Daniel Bell, author of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism “The most important studies of economic growth and development are those that go beyond the numbers and illuminate performance and its consequences by moral concerns and goals. This wider range is what gives the works of such giants as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill their timeless relevance; and it is what promises to give this new study by Benjamin Friedman its transcendental importance. He conveys this larger wisdom with a clarity and intellectual passion that make this book a nascent classic, a ‘must read.’ ”–David S. Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations “This book reminds us all of a truly important moral issue–the likely effects of economic growth or stagnation on society’s tolerance, its fairness, and its democratic values. Ben Friedman establishes yet again why he is one of America’s best economists.” –Peter G. Peterson, chairman, Council on Foreign Relations“Reading this book is an experience in discovering meaning in our economic lives. Friedman insightfully connects our sense of moral purpose with the business activities that figure so largely in our everyday endeavors. A fascinating view of world history.”–Robert J. Shiller, author of Irrational Exuberance“This powerful book achieves the rare feat of transforming economics into a social science. Friedman’s argument is both convincing and fascinating to read.”–Peter L. Bernstein, author of Against the Gods “Friedman demonstrates how economic growth promotes the social, political, and economic well-being of a citizenry, and he refutes the popular myth that economic growth is inconsistent with the development of human liberty and dignity. Fascinating and well documented.”–James J. Heckman, University of Chicago,2000 Nobel Laureate in Economics“This splendid book, written on a broad canvas that transcends parochial American concerns, is an important work that draws on insights from history and economics to argue that growth is a friend, not a foe, of prosperity and much else. It is a tour de force.” –Jagdish Bhagwati, author of In Defense of Globalization

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Moral Consequences of Economic Growth 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
swest88 More than 1 year ago
This book explains in depth, the economic policies, and overall attitudes of the many different decades in American, British, French histories. It was an enlightening experience and very well researched.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although author Benjamin M. Friedman teaches economics at Harvard, this book is not mainly about economics it is mainly about morality. Friedman goes beyond traditional academic boundaries to propose that the moral tone of various Western democratic societies is connected to their economic growth. This impressive effort may introduce you to potential connections you might otherwise have ignored. However, Friedman offers both sides of the picture. Although economic growth correlates with social progress and stronger democracy, the correlation is not exact. There are some interesting counterexamples. Moreover, the question of how to define social moral progress is very much open. The author, for example, equates racial preferences in college admissions with moral progress, though that is a controversial issue. We find that this good, thought-provoking book offers a great deal of valuable insight into a seldom-considered aspect of economic growth.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a thick book with small print, and I must admit, I wondered if I would get through it. Sounded really dry and academic, but my non-fiction book club was reading it. I was pleasantly surprised to find it so engaging.The author explores the relationship between economic progress and moral progress: do they go together? Yes, they do. But how exactly? Does economic progress result from morality? Or is it a demonstration or proof of morality? Or does it foster morality? These are the key questions examined in the context of the United States and three European countries. There are a few instances where the author may have overstated his case. For example, on page 345, he states taht high income countries where freedom and democracy are well developed are at risk if incomes stagnate. Maybe in emerging democracies, but in Canada? I doubt it. The policy prescriptions at the end of the book are its weakest part. Having read many books on public policy and almost always having this view, I believe academics/authors would provide more value by properly framing the important issues to be addressed and leaving the policy development work to policy makers. The author doesn't seem to understand how governments act. At times, government is completely absent from the analysis, yet all the "solutions" are based on government action. Cultural and religious contexts are also missing from the analysis of morality, which is never defined.The author's blending of psychology with economic analysis is the strength of this book; it is the innovative idea, at least for me. The book is well researched and easy to read.
liquidHayes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well argued. Develops the historical and psychological background for the argument that economic growth is a near requirement for the creation of a more "moral", free and open society. Sometimes weak when the author leaves US history where he is obviously more comfortable. The final section makes some half-hearted policy prescriptions primarily for US fiscal policy to stimulate future growth and is quite lightweight when compared to the rest of the book.