Degrowth in the Age of Dickens

John Stuart Mill was a man of immense principle who helped lay the foundations of modern liberalism. In On Liberty, he used the utilitarianism of his mentor Jeremy Bentham to craft a manifesto against strictures on freedom of thought or private action. His book The Subjection of Women, which expanded on the writings of his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, was a powerful assault on an inequality that he viewed as a relic of the past. He also campaigned in favor of racial equality. Although he was enough a man of his time to embrace the idea of colonization, he attacked colonial practice. In his writing on the economy, he favored income, inheritance, and excess-consumption taxes. And his views anticipated modern liberalism with regard to both animal welfare and the environment.

One more way that Mill’s writings from a century and a half ago feel distinctly of the moment is in his views on economic growth. In his Principles of Political Economy, Mill wrote a chapter “Of the Stationary State.”Book IV, Chapter VI, first published in 1848; the version quoted is the 7th edition, pp. 64-77, updated by the author in 1870. it he argued that the need for economic growth in the richest countries had run its course. “It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object,”Mill, Chapter VI, section 2.he concluded. His was far from the last suggestion that more output from greater industrialization would do little to improve quality of life. But perhaps the very antiquity of the idea should stand as a warning to those of principle and liberality who have come to a similar conclusion since then. Would modern proponents of degrowth agree that the United Kingdom’s productivity could be dialed back 170 years with minimal costs to the country’s quality of life?

In 1848, decades into the Industrial Revolution, Mill wrote that “[h]itherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment...”Mill, Chapter VI, section 2.Mill’s answer as to why this was the case was, at its core, Malthusian. The fruits of innovation had not been equally shared, he argued — a few made fortunes, and productivity growth had increased the comforts of the middle classes, but most saw no benefit and would not do so until “the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight.”Mill, Chapter VI, section 2.

Before Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, Mill argued, “the increase of mankind was virtually treated as a constant quantity... from which it followed that a constant increase of the means of support was essential to the physical comfort of the mass of mankind.”Mill, Chapter VI, section 1.Now, restraint of population was widely, and in Mill’s view rightly, seen as central to “prevent the increase of numbers from outstripping the increase of capital, and the condition of the classes who are at the bottom of society from being deteriorated.”Mill, Chapter VI, section 1.But once population growth was stalled, Mill suggested, so was the need for a growing output. Indeed, all that was needed in the “most advanced” countries “is a better distribution, of which one indispensable means is a stricter restraint on population.”Mill, Chapter VI, section 2.

Perhaps continued productivity growth could allow for greater numbers, but, argued Mill, “I see very little reason for desiring it. The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain, in the greatest degree, all the advantages both of co-operation and of social intercourse, has, in all the most populous countries, been attained. A population may be too crowded, though all be amply supplied with food and raiment.” He decried the thought of what a larger population would mean: “every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food.”Mill, Chapter VI, section 2.We might thereby fit in more people, but they wouldn’t be better off or happier for it, he concluded.

Zero-population and productivity growth would still allow for “mental culture, and moral and social progress,” Mill assured his readers. Indeed, if people weren’t obsessed with “getting on,” they could spend more time improving what he called the "Art of Living".Mill, Chapter VI, section 2.Stable numbers and better distribution at current levels of output could ensure the greatest of well-being, suggested the foremost political philosopher of mid-19th century Britain.

At that mid-century mark, Mill’s argument that previous technological advance had simply enabled a larger population to live miserable lives had bite. On some measures, it may even have been too generous. Average incomes had risen from about $2,000 in 1780 to $2,858 in 1850, with slightly rising inequality. Average food consumption had climbed by at most 250 calories a day from pre-industrial levels. Life expectancy may have been a couple of years higher than in previous centuries, probably the result of spreading smallpox vaccination. But average heights — a broad measure of population health — reached their nadir in 1850s Britain. At 166 centimeters (5 feet 5 inches), the average adult was a full 6 centimeters shorter than in 1300. And the country’s industrial cities recorded some of the lowest life expectancies in history.Income data come from the Maddison Project Database, University of Groningen, Netherlands. Inequality data are from Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Income Inequality,” Our World in Data.; other data are from Charles Kenny, “Were People in the Past Poor and Miserable?”, 2006.

Dark, satanic mills loomed over fetid and diseased slums housing the miserable inspiration for Dickens’s novels of proletarian despair and Marx’s prophecy of inevitable revolution.

But while Mill was right in 1850, his argument proved wrong soon after. As the second half of the century progressed, and accelerating into the 20th century, living standards started to improve even as populations continued to climb. Life expectancy increased nearly nine years to age 48 by 1900 as nutrition, sanitation, housing, and medical care rapidly improved (today it has reached age 81). Average heights increased 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) in the century after 1850. Literacy became ubiquitous as education spread, housing quality dramatically improved, and working hours began to decline. Regarding the liberties and rights that Mill championed, their imperfect state today is still considerably more perfect than when he wrote. And for all of Mill’s fears regarding “every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up,” the amount of land used for farming has declined since the 19th century. In 1875, UK arable land use took up 7.3 million hectares; in 2018, that area had declined to 6.2 million hectares.Yago Zayed and Philip Loft, “Agriculture: Historical Statistics,” House of Commons Library Briefing Paper no. 3339, June 25, 2019: 4, 14.

A UK population that is nearly two-and-a-half times larger today than in 1850 is enjoying a quality of life considerably higher. And, of course, average incomes have multiplied as part of that increase, from $2,858 in 1850 to $5,608 in 1900 and $39,162 in 2016. For all its recent rise, inequality in the UK is still considerably lower than it was a century and a half ago, so that greater income has been more equitably distributed.

It is worth comparing Mill’s view of sufficient output to guarantee a good life to developing-country incomes today. He suggested that, fairly distributed, the UK’s productivity in 1850 would have been sufficient for its population. That productivity generated a per capita income of $2,858 (measured in purchasing power parity in 2011 dollars). In 2016, Bangladesh had an income of $3,250. That Asian developing country performs considerably better than late 19th century Britain on measures of quality of life, including education and health — for example, it sees a life expectancy of 72 years. But still, it would be a fairly radical position today to argue that all Bangladesh needs to achieve a comfortably high standard of living is greater equality and that it should adopt a zero-growth target. A perfectly distributed income would leave each person in Bangladesh living on about $4 a day, according to the World Bank’s PovcalNet tool. That compares with a poverty line in modern Britain of about $25/day,Brigid Francis-Devine, “Poverty in the UK: Statistics,” House of Commons Library Briefing Paper no. 7096, June 18, 2020. https://researchbriefings.file... for definition of poverty (60% of median income) and povcalnet for data on UK median income per head.a little higher than in the United States.US Department of Health and Human Services, “2021 Poverty Guidelines,”

Mill was hardly the first (and far from the last) to suggest that well-being required equality far more than greater productivity, or indeed that greater productivity overall was a positive evil. Rousseau’s writings had pointed strongly in the same direction a century before. Mill’s contemporary, Karl Marx, imagined life after the revolution, where work was carried out for joy rather than the necessity of consumption: “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” And Marx predicted that revolution was imminent in European countries undergoing industrialization, suggesting that he, too, saw little need for far higher productivity to bring on a utopia for workers. Across the Atlantic, Henry David Thoreau spent two years living his dream of a simpler life in a cabin by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts just as Mill was drafting his Principles.

John Maynard Keynes, writing 80 years after Mill on the subject of Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, suggested that, as long as population was controlled, “there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed.” Indeed, his worry was that there would be too little to do: “there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963), 358-373.

In that fear, he was joined by a succession of economists. After Keynes predicted the evil of technological unemployment in the 1930s, Wassily Leontief did so in the 1950s, and Robert Heilbroner did so in 1965.Charles Kenny, “Automation and AI: Implications for African Development Prospects?” Center for Global Development, October 22, 2019. economists followed Mill in mocking the idea that greater production would bring anything of value. In the UK, E.J. Mishan spent the 1960s warning that economic growth produced nothing but discontent. (In 1960, the UK’s income per capita was about the same as Egypt’s today.) Across the Atlantic, J. K. Galbraith’s Affluent Society, published in 1958, suggested that demand for necessities was already well met for most Americans and, with redistribution, could easily be met for all. (He wrote this at a time when one third of the country still went to the toilet in an outhouse and washing machines were a rarity.)

Still other writers focused on the dark prospect that lay in store if populations were not controlled as Mill had hoped. In 1948, Fairfield Osborn wrote of Our Plundered Planet, explicitly taking Malthusianism global: “the tide of the earth’s population is rising, the reservoir of the earth’s living resources is falling.” William Vogt laid out the Road to Survival in the same year and made clear how strongly he felt a declining population was urgently required in order to save those who remained: he argued that the United Nations “should not ship food to keep alive ten million Indians and Chinese this year, so that fifty million may die five years hence.” Malthus, who had suggested that vaccination against smallpox would simply create more people living miserable lives, doubtless nodded along from his crypt. In later decades, The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich and the modeling of the Club of Rome came to similar conclusions.

Despite the far shorter period for these later predictions to prove themselves unfounded, they have done as poorly as Mill’s. Whereas the world population is roughly three times what it was in 1948, famine deaths have dramatically declined since that time, average life expectancy climbed from 46 to 73 years in 2016, global income per head increased from $3,300 in 1950 to $14,574 in 2016, and the proportion of the planet living in extreme poverty ($1.90 a day) has gone from around half to less than one tenth of the world population (although it may climb back above that level due to the COVID-19 pandemic).Our World in Data.

Both those who saw doom from greater production and those who saw present consumption as increasingly frivolous perhaps lacked imagination. It is far easier to imagine the environmental crises that will emerge if we continue on our current path than the solutions that might allow for both continued prosperity and sustainability. After all, some of those solutions have not been invented, and more have not been implemented.

Similarly, prophets of the robot-led jobs apocalypse miss the fact that new technologies create whole new products and services, which in turn create new types of employment. These are hard to predict precisely because they haven’t been invented yet. We have well-paid app designers and cybersecurity experts whose job descriptions would have been meaningless to Keynes. There is an entire cable channel, DOGTV, with producers, show-runners, vets, and many others involved in creating content for dogs (and humans) to enjoy. Neither Mill nor Marx could have imagined such employment.

One might mock the value of this canine entertainment, but it occurs at a time when the idea of killing dogs for food and sport is still with us. The world moves on, and up, in terms of the compassionate treatment of animals. The first stage is banning gross maltreatment. Then we stop eating them. Somewhat later comes providing them a television channel. Perhaps factory-farmed chickens will be the next to benefit. Future generations might see this as a sign of progress. Mill, concerned as he was with animal welfare, might even agree.

Those who champion further economic growth should not overpromise. Continued global development will not produce universal ecstasy. There is a weak link between growth and subjective well-being — a measure of self-reported utility based on answers to survey questions like “On a scale of 1 to 3, how happy are you?” And it was utility that Mill suggested he wanted to maximize, after all. The correlation between income growth and improvement in a number of different measures of health, education, and infrastructure access across countries over time is also weak at best. To complete the circle of weak association, the reality is that fewer children dying a year after they are born, more people literate, and fewer suffering for their beliefs or their sexual preferences is at best weakly reflected in happiness surveys.

Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely that had the UK and other “advanced” countries stagnated at the income level of Bangladesh today, the world as a whole would be seeing a quality of life higher than ever for more people than ever. Innovation driven by mass education, global communication, and research and development has been a by-product of economic growth as much as its cause, and technological advances have been central to broader progress — not least by allowing a higher quality of life at the same level of output in countries that have seen less growth. And even if that quality of life is ill-reflected in happiness surveys, it is a good thing nonetheless. I hazard that Mill would agree.

One important reason for the weak link between measures of quality of life and measures of subjective utility is that deprivation — in health, income, and many other domains — is a relative concept. This means that greater income growth is no cure for it. No one would declare the end to the need for a safety net in the UK because so few families fall below Joseph Rowntree’s 1903 definition of primary poverty as the minimum amount to maintain families “in a state of physical efficiency.”J.H. Veit-Wilson, “Paradigms of Poverty: A Rehabilitation of B.S. Rowntree,” 2013: 74. As it happens, not too far removed from what the World Bank’s “extreme poverty” measure was originally designed to reflect, and the Bank suggests two in every 1,000 people in the UK live on an income below that today. See also The World Bank’s PovcalNet.Poverty in the UK has been defined upward since then, as well it should have been. As a result, richer people than ever before suffer the unhappiness associated with poverty.This is one reason that fears that safety nets would promote idleness (an idea around since at least Benjamin Franklin argued against the English Poor Laws in 1768) have also proven unfounded.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus crisis has amply demonstrated that collapsing the economy is woefully insufficient to meet environmental targets, including lower greenhouse gas emissions, even as it has crashed incomes and significantly increased self-reported misery.“Charted: The Dramatic Decline in US Happiness Amid Covid-19.” Advisory Board Daily Briefing, June 22, 2020. growth may not reliably and sustainably increase subjective well-being, but apparently, contraction can achieve the reverse. Thankfully, even in the age of COVID-19, there are more humans alive than ever, and the great majority still proclaim they are happy to be here in both polls and their life choices. This implies that the stock of utility has never been higher and that Mill was wrong to suggest that more production would lead only to more miserable people.

The modern degrowth movement has adapted to a time when population expansion has stalled or reversed in many countries and the threat of mass famine has receded: rather than decrying health care or food aid for the world’s poor, it has returned to a level of humanity closer to Mill’s than the neo-Malthusians. It embraces an approach of floors and ceilings: redistribution to ensure everyone worldwide can have access to infrastructure, education, and health care even while the rich are taxed to fund the safety net and reduce overall consumption. Economist Kate Raworth labels this “donut economics,” all of humanity lives within a “safe and just space” between having too little for necessities and consuming too much for the environment. The movement champions many policies that liberals of all persuasions should surely support, including taxation to finance greater global equality of opportunity and regulation to reduce pollution. Such policies are a central reason that past economic growth has been associated with a higher quality of life, and are even more important to ensure the same for future growth.

Just because past technological progress has saved us from Malthusian doom (or millenarian misery, if I may) does not mean it always will. There are reasons to believe that the rate of innovation is slowing just as global environmental problems become more severe. Given that the world looks so different from 170 years ago, statements that were before their time back then might well be right today. Indeed, the increasingly “weightless” nature of both production and consumption (labor productivity growth driven by bigger ideas rather than bigger machines, consumption growth driven by services, not goods) suggests we might be reaching a potential saturation point of needs and desires when it comes to physical products in rich countries.

But those repeating Mill’s line on the frivolity of increasing production in general, often with the same unimpeachable motives as he had, need to ask themselves if they agree with Mill that a GDP per capita equivalent to Bangladesh’s is sufficient to guarantee a high quality of life for all. And if they do not agree, they need to answer “Why was Mill wrong then, but I am right now?”

Image Credit: John Stuart Mill by Unknown.