The 'Socialist Growth' Self-Deception

To accept Leigh Phillips' arguments is to abandon logic and evidence. Even the Flamingo stands on one leg.

I'm really annoyed to see apparently smart people making favourable comments about this article criticising de-growth on the OpenDemocracy website.

TLDR: Phillips' article is way too long, definitely don't read it. He makes a good argument in favour of stringent market interventions to reduce irrational production and improve resource distribution. He also claims that you can have growth "without limits", which is nonsense, and throws in Thatcher for no reason. He doesn't seem to understand that the size of the economy is not a direct proxy measurement for human flourishing.

At first glance, it looks well researched. It includes a lot of numbers, statistics, examples and references to historical thought. It discusses how technological advances have solved difficult problems but also been hindered by perverse economic incentives. But who cares? None of that is relevant to the core argument the author is trying to make. Which is that criticism of the doctrine of perpetual economic growth made by advocates of de-growth is invalid. In his rambling exploration of everything but the kitchen sink, he proves nothing of the kind.

Irrational production of logical fallacies

The first section talks about irrational production, which directs resources into activities which don't serve the public good. Phillips gives examples of perverse economic incentives which mean that public goods like antibiotics are underinvested in, while destructive industries like oil & gas attract a lot of investment. Obviously this is a problem, but it's not relevant to growth.

Phillips does make a good argument for market interventions that would advance a range of public goods. He calls this "economic planning". Of course, all economies are "planned" because they all function within rules set by the state (leaving aside black markets and crime). So, he's really advocating for a change in the rules that would produce outcomes different to what's happening now. Fair enough, but nothing to do with growth.

Phillips claims that endless economic expansion within a finite physical system "is not the source of the problem" of ecological challenges, pointing the finger at irrational production. Unfortunately, both things can be a problem.

He goes on to position degrowth in opposition to "socialist growth: a boundless—if carefully planned—increase in the creation of new value". Sigh... First, this creates a false equating of economic expansion with the creation of new value. New value creation also destroys value (ooh, disruption!), so it is possible to create new value without automatically expanding the economy. Steady-state advocates argue it's possible to create new value without "boundless" economic expansion. And you have to because Earth's physical resources are not "boundless".

Unfortunately, the simple fact of the Earth's non-infiniteness seems to have escaped Phillips. He's enlisted in the growth cult, and what follows is a longwinded combination of logical fallacies and motivated reasoning.

Pie without apples ≠ marmalade without oranges

Phillips carries on his argument in favour of stringent market intervention, with a load of examples including the reduction of CFCs and recovery of the ozone layer. He suggests that because we've substituted other materials and technology for refrigeration, and thereby decoupled ozone depletion from growth, we can do the same for energy. He vastly overextends his argument saying that because decoupling has happened in other areas, it "disproves the claim of the impossibility of absolute decoupling". Like an anti-black swan: because he's seen white swans, the black ones therefore must exist. (Unfortunately, all the evidence so far suggests this is not the case and we'll have to learn to live within our energy budget from the sun.)

He goes on about Malthus, Engels etc. It's a genuinely tedious read, I'm getting bored, I skim... Democratically planned economy? Fine, but it's nothing to do with growth.

He quotes from his own book: the degrowther says "There's an upper limit to what humans can have." the socialist says "through rational planning we can expand human flourishing without limits". Until the last bit, there is no conflict between degrowth and socialist viewpoints. Phillips sets up a false antagonism in favour of something that can never be: expansion "without limits". The degrowther is right, because the physical mass of resources available to us on Earth does have a limit.

Do we need more effective distribution of those resources? Yes. Could we put them to better uses than now? Yes. Can we keep distributing and consuming ad infinitum? No. Because eventually we'll hit the physical limit of what's possible. (Of course, Phillips has only focussed on humans' limitless having, he fails to mention the flourishing of bison, sea cucumbers or dandelions.)

Godwin's law of economics: As an online article about socialist economics grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Thatcher approaches 1

Phillips' motivated reasoning kicks into high gear as he throws in Margaret Thatcher, who's utterly irrelevant, to show just how despicable it is to point out that there is only so much fresh water, arable land, copper, fish, etc etc on Earth. We're even running out of sand ffs.

Honestly, I couldn't bother reading this in detail. It's about money. Money isn't real. It's a tool to help us manage real resources like water, land, goats, time, lithium, pumpkins and so on. There's a long bit about global mean income. He ignores the role of wealth and capital. He accuses people of "woolly thinking". Rich.

The end of critical thinking

Finally Phillips proclaims the end of economic growth will be the "end of progress". Progress to what? He hasn't a clue what he thinks we're progressing to, but mindlessly accepts the notion that it's happening, it's good and is equal to economic growth.

He may mean progress toward increased "human flourishing". I imagine a lot of degrowth advocates would see that as a great goal, but it doesn't negate their argument about the finiteness of the Earth.

No doubt there are advances that humans have made that have improved our health, wellbeing, knowledge of the universe and understanding of existence. Long may such enquiry continue. But this type of economic activity is not the same literal thing as economic expansion.

Living within planetary boundaries (which will be enforced by default eventually) doesn't mean an "end to technological advancement" or "end to freedom" as Phillips grandly claims, with examples that are simplistic at best. He talks about the artistic and consumer "freedom" gained when copyright laws are struck down. He ignores that, as a writer, those laws ensure his ability to buy groceries while vast energy sucking server farms full of plastic and rare earths are required to store his 'free' online articles. He describes a theoretically more efficient widget creating "additional room" for economic growth as a proof of the "feasibility of decoupling". Caught up in his own circular logic he fails to see that a) no such widget exists in the energy sector, or that b) in his decoupled scenario the size of the economy doesn't increase. Such increases in productivity do not require and expansion of economic activity (although this has always resulted historically).

That he's just disproved his next statement doesn't stop him from making it: the steady-state planned economy he's described as allowing freedom for technological/human advances would end those things.

The size of the economy is not a measure of human flourishing

In case you need a reminder of some of the things that are not included in measures of economic activity: leisure time, gut bacteria, the smell of cut grass, laughing, giraffes, helping others, wild swimming, earthworms, pride in accomplishment, the dawn chorus, friends and family...

It's important to be interrogating the idea of 'de-growth', what it may mean, how such a thing would be brought about. But Phillips' article is not that critique.