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Economic ‘Degrowth was already proposed in 1850s by JS Mill’ – ‘Bad argument then…bad argument today’



Bjorn Lomborg:Degrowth was already proposed in 1850s by JS Mill. “Most advanced” countries already had enough, just needed better distribution. In 1850, UK was below Bangladesh today. Bad argument then. Probably bad argument today.


Degrowth in the Age of Dickens

Mar 1, 2021

By Charles Kenny – a senior fellow and the Director of Technology and Development at the Center for Global Development.

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.”[1]In 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,”[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…”[3]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.”[4]

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.”[5]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.”[6]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.”[7]

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.”[8]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”.[9]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.



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