Benjamin M. Friedman
From the author of Day of Reckoning, the acclaimed critique of Ronald Reagan’s economic policy (“Every citizen should read it,” said The New York Times): The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, a persuasive, wide-ranging argument that economic growth provides far more than material benefits.
In clear-cut prose, Benjamin M. Friedman examines the political and social histories of the large Western democracies–particularly of the United States since the Civil War–to demonstrate the fact that incomes on the rise lead to more open and democratic societies. He explains that growth, rather than simply a high standard of living, is key to effecting political and social liberalization in the third world, and shows that even the wealthiest of nations puts its democratic values at risk when income levels stand still. Merely being rich is no protection against a turn toward rigidity and intolerance when a country’s citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.
With concrete policy suggestions for pursuing growth at home and promoting worldwide economic expansion, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth is a major contribution to the ongoing debate about the effects of economic growth and globalization.
Joseph E. Stiglitz on Foreign Affairs wrote:
"The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth is an impressive work: commanding, insistent and meticulously researched. Much of it is devoted to showing that in the last two centuries, periods of growth have in most nations coincided with progress toward fairness, social mobility, openness and other desirable goals, while periods of stagnation have coincided with retreat from progressive goals. These sections sometimes have a history-lesson quality, discoursing on period novels, music and other tangential matters. [...] Friedman's attempt to argue that there is something close to an inevitable link between economic growth and social advancement is not entirely successful, a troublesome point since such a link is essential to his thesis. [...] Though The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth may not quite succeed in showing an iron law of growth and liberalization, Friedman is surely correct when he contends that economic expansion must remain the world's goal, at least for the next few generations. Growth, he notes, has already placed mankind on a course toward the elimination of destitution. [...] Friedman concludes his book by turning to psychology, which shows that people's assumptions about whether their lives will improve are at least as important as whether their lives are good in the present."
D.M. Nachane on Economic and Political Weekly wrote:
"His message is nuanced (though not, in some respects, as nuanced as I would have liked),and he realizes that growth has not always brought the promised benefits. The market economy does not automatically guarantee growth, social justice, or even economic efficiency; achieving those ends requires that government play an important role. [...] Although one of these broader societal benefits is a more open and tolerant society, Friedman explains carefully that the relationship between democracy and growth is two-way: growth affects democracy; democracy affects growth. [...] Unlike so many growth proponents, Friedman realizes that what matters is not simply growth; it is the policies that give rise to it. [...] Some of these policies may promote growth in ways that will increase poverty; others may promote growth in ways that will reduce it. Some growth strategies may be good for the environment; others may not be. In short, the debate should not be centered on whether one is in favor of growth or against it. The question should be, are there policies that can promote what might be called moral growth—growth that is sustainable, that increases living standards not just today but for future generations as well, and that leads to a more tolerant, open society? [...] Friedman ends his book, which covers a delightfully wide range of topics, with an analysis of the kinds of policies that the United States might pursue to achieve his vision of moral growth. This discussion is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. [...] Friedman’s book is thus an important antidote to the populist anti growth movement and also to those who say that the free market is all we need."
Avner Offer on Economic History Society wrote:
"Friedman’s book marks an important break from this stereotyped mould by adopting an approach much in the spirit of the magnificent dynamics of the classical writers, with this important difference that whereas the classicals focused on the causal factors underlying the growth process, Friedman is more interested in the consequences of this process. Like the classicals, however, his canvas is amazingly broad, encompassing historical trends, political institutions and social and cultural contexts of individual nations. His book thus becomes a rewarding reading experience, offering rich insights into historical growth epochs, even though one may not be in full agreement with all his conclusions."
Peter Dietsch on Economics & Philosophy wrote:
"For Friedman, moral progress is openness, opportunity, tolerance, mobility, fairness, and democracy. When everyone is improving, the rich are more generous, and failure is lesspainful. It is not levels of affluence that count, but rates of change, because people get habituated to affluence.They come to care more about their relative position, and feel lessanxious about it when prospects are good. That is why economic growth drives moral progress. Evidence is sought in long narratives of American, British, French, and Germany history of the last two centuries. Few would question that prosperity is good, and even fewer would turn away the moral payoffs. But doubts soon begin to mount. In the narratives, economic and moral progress sometimes coincide, but often they do not, and the claim is reined in to ‘a general coherence over significant periods of time’ (p. 111). Social progress occurred during economic downturns, under Bismarck, Asquith, Roosevelt. Progress has often emerged out of war and revolution. Rapid economic growth has taken place under tyranny. The link between progress and growth is not spurious, but it is uncertain, and its mechanisms are not straightforward. [...] One admires the faith in history and the effort to master it, but as a probative method it does not quite deliver here. If the book had engaged more with the disorders of growth, it might have been more balanced, more persuasive, and shorter."
Peter J. Hill on Journal of Markets and Morality wrote:
"Though Friedman does not explicitly make the distinction, his argument in effect comes in two complementary versions. The conceptual thesis stipulates a connection between people’s evaluation of their material well-being and their propensity to vote for, or accept, social reforms towards a more open and tolerant society. [...] What I will call the historical thesis aims to underpin this conceptual claim by verifying whether the correlation between growth and 'moral progress' as well as between stagnation and 'moral regress' in fact holds for nineteenth and twentieth century history. [...] The following comments are organized around four questions: (1) How exactly does economic growth favour open and tolerant societies? (2) Is Friedman’s label of 'moral' consequences appropriate for the effects of growth that he describes? (3) Are his replies to potential objections convincing? (4) Might there be an alternative hypothesis that explains the historical evidence Friedman cites and that is compatible with his conceptual thesis? [...] I could not agree more with the assessment of Daniel Bell on the dust jacket of the book: 'Debatable, yes, but an argument one has to confront in assessing public policy toward globalization and aid to developing countries.'"
"It is a shame when what could be a good book is made into a somewhat mediocre one by overreaching. Friedman has written an interesting and well-researched economic history of the relationship between economic growth and certain aspects of political and economic life. His main thesis is that economic growth 'more often than not creates greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy' (4). He provides considerable evidence, not all of
it convincing, for his thesis that there is a relationship between growth and those particular aspects of our moral culture. His claim to be laying out the relationship between growth and moral progress, however, suffers from both too limited a focus and too much generalization."
Related Papers & Articles
- Empirical test by other scholars of Friedman's hypothesis that income growth increases support for egalitarian social policy, in The Journal of Socio-Economics, February 2013.
- "The Moral Consequences of Economics Growth" - article by Friedman in Forum Futures, 2007
- "Moral Consequences of Economic Growth" - text of Friedman's John R. Commons Lecture in 2016, published in The American Economist
- "The Moral Case for Growth" - article by Friedman in The International Economy, fall 2005
Interviews with Friedman on the Book
- "Growth Spurs Society's Moral Values" - interview in Bulletin - Credit Suisse, January 2008)
- "Three Cheers for the‘Progressive State’; Ben Friedman on the moral consequences of economic growth" - interview in World Economics, January - March 2008
- Podcast of an interview recorded at the American Economic Association meetings in San Francisco in January 2009
- Q&A in Knopf, a publication from the book's publisher (date unknown)
Table of Contents of The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth
Part 1 - Ideas, Their Origins, and Their Implications
- What Growth Is, What Growth Does
- Perspectives from the Enlightenment and Its Roots
- Crosscurrents: The Age of Improvement and Beyond
- Rising Incomes, Individual Attitudes, and the Politics of Social Change
Part II - Democracy in America
- From Horation Alger to Willian Jennings Bryan
- From TR to FDR
- Great Depression, Great Exception
- America in the Postwar Era
Part III - Other Times, Other Places: The European Democracies
Part IV - Development, Equality, Globalization and the Environment
- Economics and Politics in the Developing World
- Virtuous Circles, Vicious Circles
- Growth and Equality
- Growth and the Environment
Part V - Looking Forward
- Economic Policy and Economic Growth in America