The consensus among political and economic leaders today is that we must maximize economic growth. This assumption affects virtually the entire political spectrum, with the exception of a radical minority of anti-growth Greens advocating décroissance (“de-growth”). Everybody would like more money in their personal pocketbook, on their company’s balance sheet, and/or the government’s finances (if nothing else, to halt “austerity” programs). In this, U.S. President Donald Trump’s obsession with the stock market’s latest numbers is not much different from E.U. President’s Jean-Claude Juncker’s mantra of “jobs and growth.”
It is true that economic growth feels good, at least in the short term. Business leaders’ perpetual anxiety about making a profit is assuaged and they can enrich themselves through bonuses or stock options. Families can more easily makes ends meet each month. The government, raking in more money in taxes, has more money to spend on welfare, education, and healthcare.
The trouble is that humans’ desire for money and financial security can never be satiated through economic growth. The more a society has, the more a high level of wealth and comfort is taken for granted, the more extraneous luxuries we have, the more money we have to spend simply to keep up social appearances. Whereas past generations lived without cars, today this is considered a necessity. Whereas only a minority of people in the 1920s graduated high school, now almost half of Westerners go to the university – at the cost of public or personal debt – for an education and diploma whose value are often dubious. Whereas past generations may have gone hungry, since the Second World War obesity has spread across the world like an epidemic. Man works, and chases after growth, for the sake of “goods” which are inherently inflationary, or which become outright “bads.”
As the French say, l’appétit vient en mangeant: the more you have, the more you want. The belly is a bottomless pit. There can be too much of an apparently good thing. I do not believe I am exaggerating when I say that postwar society is characterized by both physical and spiritual obesity.
Don’t get me wrong: while I am in awe of the voluntary poor – the Spartans, Diogenes the Cynic, or Mahatma Gandhi – I am not a primitivist who believes we should be living a subsistence lifestyle. However, I think we have forgotten a basic traditional insight: that while a minimum of material wealth is certainly necessary for a healthy human existence, after a certain level, increased wealth leads to rapidly diminishing returns, if not outright harmfulness.
This is suggested by the above chart comparing GDP per capita and life expectancy: at around the $20,000 a year per person mark, increased wealth ceases to have much effect on life expectancy. Actually, the benefits of GDP as such may be overstated by this chart, because GDP per capita is often a decent proxy for competent socio-economic organization in general, which may the underlying cause of better healthcare and safety. Thus, a competently organized country not aiming to maximize wealth might have a high life expectancy at an even lower level of GDP per capita (a good example of this is Cuba: Cubans’ life expectancy [79.1 years] being slightly higher than Americans).
I would like to propose another view of economics and economic growth, which in fact is no more than the traditional view of both classical and modern republicanism. In a word, economic growth and purchasing power are not ends in themselves. Rather, wealth is merely a means for particular ends, to be determined by citizens. The ends I propose are eudaimonic (as first posited by Aristotle): to ensure that we, as individuals, nations, and the human race, “flourish” and fulfill to the greatest extent our biological potential and faculties. This eudaimonic public good was defined by Charles Darwin as follows:
The term, general good, may be defined as the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full vigour and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are subjected. As the social instincts both of man and the lower animals have no doubt been developed by nearly the same steps, it would be advisable to take as the standard of morality, the general good or welfare of the community, rather than the general happiness; but this definition would perhaps require some limitation account of political ethics.Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Penguin, 2004 [reprint of second edition, London: John Murray, 1879]), p. 145.
The advantage of eudaimonism is in giving an end to our otherwise aimless economic trajectory, characterized by the accumulation of stuff. A eudaimonic economics in contrast would be aimed firstly at ensuring human survival and secondly at promoting human excellence.
This begs the question: What is human “excellence”? There can be some debate on this. Our societies however express an implicit belief: that rational and conscious creatures are more valuable than the merely animate (animals) or the vegetative (plants), and that is why humans (and possibly other sentient species) ought to enjoy certain “rights.” This reflects the belief that humans’ rationality and capacity for knowledge and consciousness are our highest faculties. This is not a bad starting point.
Human beings’ rationality, knowledge, and consciousness are furthermore developed and passed on through training, research, and culture. For Aristotle, having to work for a living was a terrible thing – he even wished that there might be divine robots to do the work for us, a dream well within the realm of possibility in the age of automation – and humans should instead, to the extent possible, engage in leisure. But leisure for him did not mean, being a pothead on the dole, but rather fulfilling humans’ potential as rational and social beings, notably by practicing philosophy (the love and pursuit of wisdom, hence the training, research, and culture mentioned above) and rational self-government (civic politics).
This eudaimonic yardstick puts a definite limits on the demands for ever-more things, ever-more growth, ever-more “economic justice.” Today’s mainstream Left, characterized by a limp social-democracy, is as obsessed with purchasing power as is the capitalist Right. Yet the fact is that, callous as it may sound, today your average unemployed northwest European lives in more comfort and security than did a king three centuries ago. That is why social-democracy has become morally exhausted.
Eudaimonic economics gives us a definite sense of what economic justice might be: to ensure collective survival and well-being, to promote excellence in all individuals to the extent possible, but indeed prizing exceptional individuals’ excellence above that. (If I had to choose between giving a thousand proletarians cars and funding a Da Vinci-tier genius’ research program, I would not hesitate for one second.) Eudaimonism means a fertile balance and dialectic between public good and individual excellence, because it both recognizes the inequality of human beings in excellence, and their fundamental interdependence as members of the community. That is to say, eudaimonism affirms the unity and diversity of human societies, rather than the social atomization and fictive equality of the today’s societies.
Eudaimonism furthermore recognizes humans’ collective excellence as societies, for we are social beings. This would mean subordinating economic growth and trade to whatever collective faculties you hold dear. For classical republicans, these might include real political-economic sovereignty as part of civic self-government (dear to both the ancient republicans and the American Founding Fathers), military prowess, or the fostering of an excellent national culture of artistic and scientific achievement.
As a practical example, eudaimonic economics would (re)distribute wealth insofar as this promoted public goods such as collective survival, social stability, civic solidarity, and maximization of each individual’s potential. On these grounds, assuming the society had the means to do so, eudaimonic economics would (re)distribute wealth to ensure all citizens have their basic biological needs met – food, clothing, housing, healthcare – and would give them educational and professional opportunities to fulfill their individual potential.
The eudaimonic rationale puts a definit limit on redistribution however. Income equality is not an end in itself, but merely a means to higher goods. The affirmation of absolute equality as a goal can only lead to perpetual dissatisfaction (as this is impossible to achieve) or even outright civil war and tyranny (as exceptional means are taken to create equality, witness the French and Bolshevik revolutions).
Eudaimonic economics clearly opposes excessive redistribution once citizens’ basic needs and opportunities to train and educate themselves are guaranteed. It would furthermore be opposed to excessive redistribution and labor market regulation insofar as these have detrimental effects on society as a whole (e.g. by squashing entrepreneurial spirit, eliminating any sense of agency in citizens, promoting a ‘bureaucrat mindset’ among even private-sector employees). Conversely, we ought not forget the old ideal of the independent farmer-citizen in the Western republican tradition, even if the idea of economically-independent citizens appears to us impractically quaint today.
Eudaimonic economics also puts a limit on the amount of wealth that needs to be produced. Put simply, once our basic needs are met, we shouldn’t be working at all but should, according to the ancient Hellenic and indeed early American ideal, enjoy leisure. Well-spent leisure doesn’t mean bumming around, by the way, but using your time to cultivate yourself free of the constraints of sheer material necessity. Once we are wealthy enough, we shouldn’t be pursuing any amount of “B.S. jobs” or government-subsidized make-work so as to be obese couch potatoes, social-media addicts, or even over-coddled consumers.
We ought to be spending our free time to practice sports and maintain healthy bodies, develop our artistic sensibility and skills, and above all cultivate and train our minds, including the pursuit of science. Aristotle himself used his abundant leisure time to become perhaps the most productive philosopher and scientist the world has ever seen, whose works on psychology, society, biology, and physics set the standard for thousands of years.
Are eudaimonic economics possible? Are they realistic? I believe so. The European Union has mulled various measures to go “beyond GDP” in the setting of socio-economic goals. Andrew Yang’s proposal of a Universal Basic Income of $1000 per month for all Americans could go in this direction,Although, realistically, such “free money” should in priority go to those who would use their leisure well, your Da Vincis and so on. Whether the U.S. government is competent to identify those individuals is another question… as this means redistribution in order to meet basic human needs in the face of obsolescence, as opposed to the usual egalitarian ressentiment. In short: the capitalist wants infinite wealth, the socialist wants infinite redistribution, but the eudaimonist wants make humanity great again!
 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Penguin, 2004 [reprint of second edition, London: John Murray, 1879]), p. 145.
 Although, realistically, such “free money” should in priority go to those who would use their leisure well, your Da Vincis and so on. Whether the U.S. government is competent to identify those individuals is another question…