Artificial Intelligence and Society: Philosophy of Fallibility
Part 15: From Economic Growthism to Intellectual Growth

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Finally, we will consider the significance of our argument (theory of innovation-driven justice) from a different angle. As a result of the collapse of grand narratives in the early modern era, the faith in the progress of reason that was prevalent in the 19th century has been lost in modern society. "Economic growthism," which will be explained below, has filled that void and become a religion for modern society. The theory of innovation-driven justice that has been discussed in this chapter may provide clues that allow human society to pull itself out of the dead end of economic growthism.

It is simply strange that when we consider the sustainability of the global environment or the human world, a society with everlasting economic growth is upheld as an ideal society in academic and policy discussions, as indicated by the Japanese government's pursuit of "2% growth." As the reserves of natural resources and energy available on the earth are limited, it is impossible for production volume or energy consumption to continue growing forever. For example, if GDP continues growing at an annual pace of 2%, it will expand by a factor of 400 million in 1,000 years, which is an unrealistic prospect. As that kind of growth is impossible, human society is certain to reach a static state with no growth at some point in the future. On the other hand, political leaders across the world invariably uphold economic growth as a national goal, and most people also rally behind that goal.

We may say that economic growth is the "religion" of modern society in that the whole society aims to achieve it with no regard for scientific feasibility. There are several politico-philosophical reasons why economic growth is upheld as a society-wide goal (economic growthism).

The first reason is that pursuing economic growth as an economic policy goal is quite harmonious with modern liberalism. As Michael Sandel noted, in a modern liberal society, the government cannot determine a single value that should be pursued as a national goal because the population has diverse values (Sandel, 2010 and 2011). Until the 19th century, economic policy arguments in the United States represented clashes over values. For example, there was a clash between the Jacksonian values, which upheld the goal of developing an industrial structure that was conducive to fostering independent minds among farmers, and the Hamiltonian values, which advocated the expansion of trade through the promotion of large enterprises. From the 20th century onwards, we have seen the spread of a large variety of values, and implementing economic policy based on a particular set of values has come to be seen as imposing values on the people, which is politically unpopular. Economic policy in a liberal society must be value-neutral. This means that by default, aiming to expand the "gross volume" of goods and services, that is, GDP, becomes the only option available. As a result, in a liberal society where the diverse values of individuals are respected, achieving value-neutral economic growth becomes a society-wide goal.

The second reason why economic growthism is very popular is that it allows ruling politicians to put off their "day of reckoning." John G. A. Pocock (professor emeritus, John Hopkins University), a historian of political thought, characterized commerce as a "virtue" while referring to the thoughts of federalists immediately after the independence of the United States (Pocock, 2008). Virtue in this context has a special meaning, that is, policymakers' ability to start a new commitment without honoring an old one. If economic growth expands the societal frontiers, politicians who previously committed themselves to redistributing income to various corners of society can present a new goal and make a new commitment, ignoring the old one. That does not mean that they break the old commitment, as it is embedded into the new commitment. If the ability to make a new commitment without breaking an old commitment is to be called a virtue, pursuing economic growth is then a virtue. Honoring the old commitment of redistributing income usually involves great pains, but the "day of reckoning" for that commitment can be put off indefinitely as long as economic growth continues. Achieving growth is the same as putting off the day of reckoning. That is why economic growthism is favored by politicians.

The third reason why economic growthism is prevalent in modern society is related to the collapse of grand narratives that has been discussed in my series. When the early modern faith in the progress of human reason was lost as a result of the experiences of the 20th century, the values that made individuals' lives worthwhile (the common values of the whole society) were also lost. The progress of reason as an ideal has been replaced by a modern value, namely economic growth.

To go back to Hannah Arendt's argument, the fundamental experience of modern people is that of "being abandoned" (Arendt, 2017). In modern society, where individuals do not have a permanent place of belonging from the moment of birth due to the collapse of traditional communities, many people feel that they are useless to society and are needed by nobody. As humans cannot endure that experience, they immerse themselves in totalitarian ideologies. This observation by Arendt indicates that the lives of free individuals cannot become worthwhile unless their lives have some significance within the social system of values.

In the early modern era, the faith in the progress of reason was the social value that made individuals' lives worthwhile, but this grand narrative collapsed. Afterwards, material wealth became the only common value among the diverse values of individuals that makes their lives worthwhile. That is the reason why economic growth has become a society-wide goal.

Individuals can feel worthwhile by contributing, directly or indirectly, to economic growth. In this respect, achieving economic "growth" is fundamentally more important than anything else. If individuals do not see any improvement in their living standards despite their best efforts, they cannot gain the sense that they have contributed to economic development. Let us recall Formula (5) in Part 8. If individuals are to find the meaning of their lives in contributing to economic development, the economy needs to "grow." As a result, pursuing "economic growth" as a goal has become a broad consensus in modern society.

Moreover, the growth must be "everlasting." If economic growth is to come to an end at some point in the future, the factor that gives meaning to individuals' lives (=growth) disappears at that point. If individuals' lives are destined to become meaningless in the future, no meaning can be imparted to their lives at present, either. People believe that their lives today are worthwhile because their lives tomorrow are expected to be worthwhile. If their lives tomorrow are set to become meaningless, that reasoning crumbles. Therefore, growth must be everlasting.

It is physically impossible for economic growth to continue forever. To make a future human society sustainable, we should pursue some form of growth other than economic growth as a goal. The "progress of intellect" due to the power of artificial intelligence and information technology may replace economic growth as a new social ideal. That possibility is indicated by the theory of innovation-driven justice that was discussed in Part 9 to Part 15. If human intellect is enhanced by artificial intelligence, the possibilities for development of the intellect expand infinitely, while the progress of the intellect is unlikely to be bound by either resource or environmental constraints. That kind of "growth" can give meaning to the lives of free individuals and maintain the sustainability of the world at the same time. We must find a new theory of political philosophy that transcends economic growthism.

January 17, 2023

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