Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Benjamin Friedman

Today's afternoon lecture at Chatauqua was given by Harvard Prof. Benjamin Friedman and was a summation of his book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. Dr. Friedman's main these is that in order for there to be 'moral' progress in a particular society, say development in the areas of tolerance or fairness, there must be economic growth and development. He cites an historical time-line in America where economic growth preceded 'moral' progress and where economic decline preceded 'moral' decline. He called the potential for grow and therefore moral progress 'Good News' and stated that he chose that phrase specifically.
His argument reminded me of Jeffrey Sachs' book The End of Poverty in which Sachs highlighted some of the social benefits of economic growth. For instance, and this is my example, many young women in Thailand, who do not have the benefits of education or opportunity for work, are forced into prostitution so as to provide financially for their families. Economic growth would provide alternatives to this situation. Friedman doesn't make this specific example, but I think that Friedman does make a good point; economic growth and security is important, very important, for the moral lives of humanity. We see this same point in the Genesis and Exodus narratives where God leads Abraham and later Moses and Israel toward the prosperity of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. God wants Israel to live as Brueggeman has summarized in his commentary on Genesis, in 'Safety, Security and Status' (at least I think those were the three 's' words that he used)
However, in Exodus and in the retelling of the Exodus events in Deuteronomy there is also a warning, that if Israel focused only on its material wealth and failed to live within an economy of trust which in practice is an economy of living with enough and sharing generously with others, this safety and security would be lost to them.
From my perspective, this is where Friedman's argument looses some momentum. For he fails to deal with the underside of the story. for instance the economic growth in early American History that went along-side slavery. Or the way in which immigrant populations or even child-labor was utilized in factories during the industrial revolution. This does not completely undermine his theory, but I would have liked to hear him address these issues. And this is what was seriously lacking. One may not want to launch into a Marxist rejection of Capitalism, but neither can one completely buy into this idea that moral progress depends of economic growth... there are also instances where such growth was concurrent with moral lapse... even in our own current economic downturn... which was preceded by much growth.
What I did find hopeful, although Friedman said little about this point, was that he at least mentioned something Niskanen avoided; that there was a societal obligation toward those who cannot avail themselves of growth in increase of living standards. Friedman called this 'Labor Market Luck' and he seemed to suggest that in times of economic growth, it is inevitable that not everyone will recieve the benefit of growth, but that the moral development should address this lack of economic luck in a responsible manner.
Deuteronomy builds this into the fabric of the story of security. It is the Jubilee practice that maintains a certain social responsibility for the unlucky. I am not so certain that a Free Market Economy automatically or consistently encourages this 'altruism'. Niskanen didn't think so... Friedman seemed to hint it might. However, what Friedman said suggested to me that Capitalism at least didn't shut the door to social resposibility and that it just might have some space to allow for charity.

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