The Diseconomics of Growth

H.V. Hodson

Chapter XII.

Ways of Life

Whether we look at the natural environment, or at the problem of swelling cities, or at menacing population growth, or at the running-down of limited resources, the heart of the matter for the future of mankind is seen to lie in ways of life—“what men live by,” to borrow a story-title by Tolstoy, a man who came to scorn the approved way of life of his kind and to live by faith in simpler ways. “Way of life” is a term easy to use but hard to define and harder to analyse. But we can discern many elements in it: home, family, friends, work, leisure, sport, movement, natural and man-made habitat, food and drink, sex, religion, moral standards, discipline, education, ambitions, emulation and display, political and social intercourse—among which purely economic elements play but a minor part, though a generally supporting one. All these things take different shapes and values for different men and women, different countries, different races and religions, different times. There is no ideal way of life, but there are many imperfections in actual ways of life, both for the individual man or woman and for the society in which he or she lives and for mankind at large.

If we seek a key to ways of life, or life-standards, which will be less imperfect for mankind, less threatening to his future, than those which now prevail, we shall not find it in escapism. Very few can have the means or opportunity of escape from the economic and social order in which they presently exist. One man can turn his back on the city and live as a peasant or farmer (maybe with the good fortune of a city-made income to support him) but not millions of men. Too often those who renounce the world or reject society are in reality parasitical upon it—the enclosed religious order who live by the charity of the lay faithful, the beatniks who hitchhike on vehicles provided by the economic establishment they denounce. Opting out is no solution to the problem of better ways of life. The solution must affect the many, not only the few.

Of the various elements that have been enumerated, work and leisure must vary so vastly between different people that little can be said about them in general that is not platitudinous. If work is the curse of Adam there is not much that can be prescribed except progressively to reduce it; but work is also part of Adam’s blessing. Ask the unemployed, or their wives, or the underemployed. Perhaps with a 40-hour week we are nearing the limits of beneficial reduction of extent of work; certainly the cult of less work has led to indifference towards bad work, and so to lack of pleasure and pride in work, thence to demand for still less work. Good work is essential to a good way of life. As to leisure, whatever the moral merits, idleness is better in its effect on the world than restless movement and stimulated appetite for consumption. There are plenty of ways of using leisure which do not require the labours of others or the consumption of expensive goods. Nature is a great refreshment, whether it lie in a wilderness or a garden or even a pigeon loft.

Economic factors cannot be entirely eliminated from comparisons of ways of life, for they affect so much else, if not directly then through their bearing upon the home—what it is, where it is, how the family can live in and around it, what social relations it allows. Manifestly, improving homes is a key way to improve life-standards generally, and this, let us note in passing, need not involve heavy charge on scarce resources, and could well replace some “investment for growth” without upsetting the general pattern of the economy, including the balance of consumption and saving. Better home life is the road to better way of life generally. This has clear lessons for public policy as well as private behaviour.

It may well be that with the indiscipline, or permissiveness, of the present era of home and parent-children relations we are breeding an unhappy, restless, disorientated generation, and leading them to worse, not better, ways of life than our own. We are failing them if we insist on no standards of conduct or merit, no care for objects other than those that catch the passing fancy, no anchorage in home nor respect for its values. The physical character of the home and its contents is clearly important to the lessons—that the child learns, but even this is not a matter of economics alone.

Economic factors will, it is true, always complicate comparisons of non-economic ways of life, but there are means of separating them and lessening the distortion they might make to our judgments. One is to compare the ways of life of people at the same relative economic level (relative, that is, to the general standards of the community or nation) at different periods of time. We can then see how far change in their absolute economic level has enlarged or diminished, bettered or worsened, their ways of life as a whole. One such comparison, authentic in its lack of bias, has already been cited in an earlier chapter—the fact that people in a working-class district of Manchester seemed to one who lived among them and belonged to them to be less happy now than fifty years ago. Here is another, from a frankly left-of-centre reformist parson, Nicholas Stacey, writing in his autobiography, Who Cares, about the poor, densely populated London parish of which he was Rector:—

From my personal knowledge of our non-churchgoing parishioners I was convinced that ... they wanted a faith, a dynamic and a purpose in life. It was a commonplace that the new-found affluence which had transformed their standards of living had not brought the joy and satisfaction that was predicted. There was as much bitterness, bloody-mindedness and resentment as ever. There was less hardship, but there was probably more depression and more loneliness and more mental illness. The old inhabitants of Woolwich would constantly say to me “Give us back the good old days.” Even allowing for the inevitable nostalgia about the past it was in many cases a real cri de coeur. I found the veneer of adult self-confidence and youthful arrogance so often hid a deep sense of uncertainty, insecurity and emptiness.

We all indeed have wistful dreams of the “good old days” of our youth or some past time whose hardships and sorrows have faded from our minds. So did our ancestors, no doubt, right back to primitive man. We are too down-to-earth, too scientific nowadays to believe in a Golden Age of the philosophers, when the world was young and man was innocent. Nevertheless, that heart-cry from the working-class people of Woolwich is obviously no Tory longing for an economic Eden before the Fall, but must have sprung from hard experience of changing ways of life. What was it that they mourned in the “good old days?” Was it not a closer neighbourly and family relationship, a solidarity with fellow-men, a stability of daily life, a constant code of values and morals, regular behaviour and customs, enlivened by modest pleasures and attainable hopes?

It seems possible that they missed, too, a more ordered social structure. A fairly stable class system has evils but also merits. Class barriers, class rigidity and class enmity are unpleasant manifestations, but class standards and sense of community can lighten human burdens. There has been too much emphasis on the economic element in social class. Its importance grows less and less in a society such as the English, where the so-called “lower” classes often have higher incomes than many of the so-called “upper” classes. There is more vertical solidarity in the countries of the Old World than in those of the New World, where the class structure is more predominantly economic in its divisions. In Britain, economic class and social class are today falling more clearly than ever into different patterns. Education rather than money has always been the clue to transition between social classes. Economic affluence and educational opportunity have between them weakened the old class structure without firmly creating a new. Family solidarity and neighbourly relations have both been shaken. Such relations with other people, both in and across class compartments, play a great part in ways of life, and are shown by historical examples to transcend material standards.

Another means of mitigating the distortion of economic factors in a review of various ways of life is to compare the ways of life of people at much the same level of consumption of food, clothing, house-room—the basic objects of income-spending—but in different countries and places. Ask a Frenchman of, say, the artisan or lower middle class why his way of life is better than the English way, or an Englishman of the same class why his is better than the American, or a comparable American why the American way of life is better than any in Europe, or ask an Australian why his is the best in the world, and the answers will imply a wide array of different values. Some of them will be social: the Frenchman’s café, the Englishman’s pub, the American’s suburban life perhaps, the Australian’s sport. Others will relate to politics, broadly understood: involvement in local affairs, respect for leaders, freedom of speech, confidence in justice, absence of crime and so on. Still others will centre upon family life: husband-wife relations, parent-children relations, the disciplines and comforts of the home and the “extended family” (grandparents, aunts and uncles). Yet others will concern contacts with nature—the evening’s fishing in the canal, the walk through the fields, the trip to the mountains or sea, sunshine and surf.

Although economic means do help to support and enlarge such non-economic elements in ways of life, these are distinct from economic elements and in greater or less degree independent of them. There can be immense variations in life-standards within a uniform standard of economic income. To raise economic income does not necessarily raise life-standards. Up to a point, higher economic income enlarges options for non-economic behaviour; beyond a certain point, it may actually diminish them: thus a poor man can please himself about doing things which if he were richer would be taboo; to own a car is a great liberation, but it is also a great commitment; in polygamous societies the same might be said of having two or more wives. Some variations are personal, for example those between order and disorder, discipline and slackness, in daily conduct or family relations. But a great part of everyone’s way of life is shared with countless others, members of the same neighbourhood or class, and is indeed adopted in unconscious imitation of them or because no other way seems open or acceptable in the social circumstances.

Movement is largely a social element with an economic framework. It covers both daily and other habitual movement, such as journeys to and from work or in non-working periods, and larger movement in the course of life, such as moving from house to house or job to job. There are some people who seem constitutionally restless, others whose circumstances through life compel them to move hither and thither, sometimes in distant migration. But for the great majority of people much movement is far from either a blessing or a necessity. Quietness, keeping still and near to familiar things, stability, these are all positive components of a good way of life. They are closely connected with the benefits of the extended family: movement either short-term or long-term can disrupt those wider family relations which knit in with a sense of security, of “belonging,” and which we so envy in others if we are unfortunate enough not to enjoy them ourselves. They are by no means identified with height of economic levels, but to a large extent the contrary. A society subject to rapid economic advance is a society subject to constant change and consequent personal instability: instability of occupations, of location of industry, of urban and rural residence. Some instability is essential to the life and health of any society, for the alternative is stagnation and eventual decay. But it must be reaffirmed that in this respect, as in some others, community economic motives may war with personal non-economic welfare.

The argument can be taken further in regard to those elements which have been called ambitions, and emulation or display. Those terms are not meant to have any derogatory significance. To strive for standards set by others, or to set standards for others, is as much a product of wholesome pride as of jealous and fruitless competition. “Living up to the Joneses” is a good motive in so far as it means keeping to good standards established by admired people. But it is a bad motive when it means struggling to acquire things which are not wanted for their own sake but merely because others have them, at the expense of more desirable but less competitive purposes. And what do the Joneses live up to? They live up to the Browns and the Robinsons, who are themselves living up to the Joneses. If this entails an endless round of vying with someone else, especially in material things which can be seen and displayed, it is a pernicious influence upon real welfare and good ways of life. It can enhance all the diseconomies of economic growth, including those of purposeless drain on limited material resources.

Ambitions, as we all know, can be good or bad. The ambitious man or woman is the dynamo of society and may well be the benefactor of his family and community. Or he may be their bane. The unambitious man may well be the happier; but who can define happiness, let alone quantify it? The word ambition has a certain bitter tang. Ambition, it is said, can eat a man’s heart out; it can eat a society’s heart out too. If, in the context of ways of life, we say aspirations rather than ambitions, we rid ourselves of those disagreeable overtones. Furthermore, we more readily recognise that aspirations may relate to aspects of life other than the economic, and that many of them can be fulfilled outside the limits of economic advancement. As for the individual, so also for the society or nation. It can aspire, as he can, to be rich, or to be happy, or morally sounder, or wiser, or better educated, or more at peace with the world. Contentment is not a merely passive condition; it can and does embrace the fulfilment of aspirations, if these themselves are not inherently discontents. Professor Ivor H. Mills of the Department of Investigative Medicine in the University of Cambridge has observed:—

There is increasing evidence that the escalating race—for affluence in the highly developed countries is having repercussions directly upon the individuals who continue in the race or in those who are forced to drop out. These biological and mental effects of intense competition may have a much more serious effect on the highly developed countries than the using up of resources or the effects of pollution.

The tragedy is that the results of intense competition are showing mainly in young people, the very ones on whom the future depends. The peak age for such things as attempted suicide, drug abuse and self-imposed starvation is in the twenties... It may be difficult to tie these events directly to the competitive nature of modem life but whenever one lectures to young people on the subject they readily appreciate that the stresses are there. [The Times, 25th November 1971]

Enough has been said to show that neither is a good way of life identical with economic wealth, nor is improvement of life-standards identical with economic growth. They can be raised and enlarged within the ambit of that nil-growth economy which has been depicted in an earlier chapter. The potential of economic growth can be diverted to means of raising total life-standards, not merely their economic content: to providing better homes, less wasteful movement, better urban surroundings, access to better conserved and more respected nature, less environmental pollution (including noise and ugliness), less fear of crime, violence and disease both physiological and social. Our societies have elevated economic wealth, economic consumption and economic growth to far too high a place in the hierarchy of welfare, of aspirations and motives, and have thereby debased many constituents of the good way of life. Envy has been nurtured rather than contentment. For all our economic growth our ways of life may be worsened, not bettered. And the prospect for the future on that track is worse than the record of the past.

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