It’s a brave politician that talks about economic growth in anything other than worshipful tones. Italy’s Lorenzo Fioramonti is a rare example, though his time in government was brief for unrelated reasons. New Zealand, Wales and a handful of other countries have instituted policies that look beyond economic growth, though the politicians behind them weigh their comments on growth itself carefully. David Cameron pondered growth scepticism for about five minutes before being elected and then never mentioned it again.
Perhaps because the role is mostly ceremonial, the president of Ireland is a notable exception to this tendency. Michael Higgins has spoken about postgrowth economics before, and spoke at length about it in a recent speech to the Think-Tank for Action on Social Change (TASC).
“A fixation on a narrowly defined efficiency, productivity, perpetual growth has resulted in a discipline that has become blinkered to the ecological challenge – the ecological catastrophe – we now face,” he told his audience.
“That narrow focus constitutes an empty economics which has lost touch with everything meaningful, a social science which no longer is connected, or even attempts to be connected, with the social issues and objectives for which it was developed over centuries. It is incapable of offering solutions to glaring inadequacies of provision as to public needs, devoid of vision.”
You can watch the whole speech below, or read the transcript here.
Higgins also turns towards how things could be different, and I was pleased to see how that a lot of what he imagines matches my own thoughts in The Economics of Arrival. It included a just transition away from fossil fuels. Wealth shared through universal government services. Participative decision-making. Ecologically aware government, and “a more active, participatory, fulfilling version of society than one where citizenship is defined as licence to insatiable consumption”.
“The challenge for all of us here today is to find a way of building, with all our distinctive contributions, an alternative to that hegemonic discourse that casts competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, as the ultimate purpose of economic activity, and inexorable growth in output and trade as an end in itself.”
Higgins isn’t in charge of Ireland’s economic policy, so these sorts of ideas aren’t going to inform government directly. But his comments can still be influential. They help to push a more imaginative, more humane economics towards mainstream conversation. They make it okay to question growth, and foreshadow the day when that false god is eventually dethroned in favour of an economics based on what matters most: people and the lives they lead, the work they do, and the relationships that make like meaningful.