An ancient idea, gussied up; still inimical to freedom

Jonah Goldberg in Simply Madness

The idea behind the steady-state economy should be familiar to anyone who’s heard the lament that capitalism is bad for the environment because it rapaciously consumes resources faster than they can be replaced.

It’s an ancient idea, really, a kind of millenarian paranoia that keeps getting gussied up to fit the latest headlines...

A few years ago, a special issue of New Scientist magazine was dedicated to the steady-state economy. In it, Herman Daly, a leading guru behind the movement, explained that in his new ideal “sustainable economy,” “scientists set the rules.”

Translation: If the ecologists don’t like an idea, that idea is out. Daly’s hardly the only person out there imagining a kind of Plato’s Republic where the philosopher-kings are replaced with environmental and climate scientists. The 2007 book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy makes a similar argument, though its enemy is liberal democracy rather than economic growth.

Either way, the problem becomes clear: When people start talking about capping, halting, or managing economic growth, what they really mean is capping, halting, and managing freedom. Hence Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and avowed envier of China’s authoritarian regime, declares that “The Earth Is Full” and we must therefore embrace a version of the steady-state economy.

Economic growth is an enemy of all central planners for the simple reason that growth jumps the guardrails of The Plan; it changes the aesthetically appealing flat line of the steady state and makes it jagged. Growth creates new products, destroys old ones, and allows people to behave in ways that render PowerPoint projections dismayingly obsolete. Worse, it takes power from the planners.

In order to herd people back onto the official path, planners must tell them that what exists outside the guardrails is too terrifying to contemplate. “Beyond here there be monsters” is the posted sign at every guardrail.

For the record, America has more forests than it did a century ago. Our air, water, and food are cleaner than at any time since industrialization. That is not because we lived simply, but because we pursued economic growth and accumulated the wealth and expertise to mend our problems. Over the long run, the same pattern holds true for every country that embraces economic growth.

That’s why climate change is such a useful bogeyman: It is non-falsifiable, at least in our lifetimes. The “scientists set the rules,” and there’s no room for appeal. And — surprise! — in order to avoid catastrophe, the same old adages apply.

UPDATE:  the author continues in today’s G-file:

One of the underlying themes of Liberal Fascism is that collectivism is a natural human impulse. We are hardwired to be tribal creatures. As a result, the same human compulsions keep re-expressing themselves. This explains why, in politics, we keep trying to divinize the masses, to make ourselves into “the ones we have been waiting for.” It explains why socialism will never, ever go away. All socialism is a popular manifestation of the hardwired human desire to live in a tribe, albeit misapplied to national or international politics and economics.

When you remove the power and symbolism of religion in our daily lives, religious impulses start creeping in from other directions and sources (which might explain why Jill Abramson recently explained that the New York Times substituted for religion in her house growing up). As Eric Voegelin puts it: “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place. Like the Christian ecclesia, the inner-worldly community has its apocalypse too.”

And the apocalypse in vogue for the last decade or so has been climate change. That’s changing, I think, as the cause has lost traction. Which is why it was interesting that Tom Friedman brought back the old standard of overpopulation and disappearing resources the other day. I think this is a sign that the new Utopia will not be a classless pure Communism, or a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, but the so-called “steady-state economy.”

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