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Who thinks they are in conflict?

Through the letterbox drops a begging letter from the head of a
university. Fair enough. The needy beg. The first sentence reads as

Today, the defining struggle in
the world is between relentless growth and the potential for

This is very odd in all sorts of ways.

First, the implication seems to be that `relentless’ growth
might be a bad thing. Tell that to those suffering as a result of
the recession – the very opposite of growth – or those living in
poverty who would – in some cases will – die for lack of relentless

Second, in what sense is there a `struggle’, let alone a
defining one? Does he mean that those who espouse growth are
fighting those who espouse collaboration (I suspect he means
co-operation, a word with less sinister connotations)? I can’t
think which conflict this applies to.

But third, the most remarkable thing about this sentence is the
implication that growth comes at the expense of collaboration. I
find it astounding that anybody can really think this after
Montesquieu and Condorcet, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Friedrich
Hayek and Paul Romer, after tit-for-tat and gains from trade, after
South Korea and North Korea.

Wherever the ways of man are
gentle, there is commerce,

said Montesquieu,

and wherever there is commerce
there the ways of men are gentle.

Surely the way growth happens is by people exchanging and
specialising, by people bringing together and combining their ideas
into technologies and practices that supply each other’s needs. The
way to grow is to make or do something that somebody else needs or
wants. In a word, by collaborating.

Let us charitably assume that the university head has signed a
letter written by some fund-raising consultant (which is why I am
not naming him). Said consultant no doubt thinks that the
sentence expresses an unexceptional and obvious truth. After all he
is likely to have heard that economic growth comes at the expense
of collaboration from almost every parent, priest, paper and
professor he encounters. It is indeed conventional wisdom.

Depressing to find it parroted by the head of a university,


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist