Review of Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas

Sadly, the key developer of the Steady State Economy model, Herman Daly, died on 28 October 2022.

Leading fellow ecological economist, Peter Victor, released his biography of Herman Daly earlier this year.  My review of this book appeared in the November 2022 Sustainable Population Australia newsletter (see page 5).

Alternatively, full text follows:

Book Review

Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas

by Peter Victor
Earthscan from Routledge, 2022. 300 pp. Soft copy RRP $73.99 (discounts available online)

ISBN: 978-0-367-55695-2

Reviewed by Jonathan Miller

 

Neoclassical economics is the dominant language of politicians and the media, and ongoing economic growth is the pre-eminent goal of nearly every nation. Yet, this is taking humanity to the brink of disaster at exactly the time we need prominent voices emphasising the dependence of our societies on a healthy environment. Peter Victor biography, Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Idea, is therefore timely.  Herman Daly stands out for developing models that place economics within its environmental context. He is best known as a founder of ecological economics and for proposing principles for a steady state economy.

Victor’s early chapters describe Daly’s childhood and professional life and the major influences on his thinking. Victor is not a professional writer, however, and these sections sometimes feel pedestrian. What emerges, nonetheless, is a picture of Daly as a humble man of high integrity, strongly influenced by his Christian faith and his encounters with those less fortunate.

The majority of the book is devoted to Daly’s ideas and his intellectual engagement with critics and supporters. Victor’s writing is stronger here, reflecting his standing as another highly-respected ecological economist. Given his strong friendship with Daly, it is unsurprising that Victor provides a generally sympathetic assessment of Daly’s arguments. This book, however, is not a hagiography and also identifies shortcomings in Daly’s work.

The biography includes a chapter on population and migration. Daly apparently believes that “more people…are better than fewer, but only if they are not all alive at the same time!” In his earlier formulations of the steady-state economy, he prescribed a stable population, but he later relaxed this requirement so long as resource throughput were relatively constant. Daly’s early population concerns were informed by his work in north-eastern Brazil, where he observed that contraception was readily available to the wealthier entrepreneurial class, but not to the labouring poor. While not a Marxist, Daly saw the denial of contraception to the poor as exploitative, providing an expanding pool of underpaid workers for capital. Daly argued that slowing population growth was critical to improving living standards for the poor.

Some of Daly’s other population perspectives were controversial and decidedly politically incorrect. Borrowing from the environmental economic ‘cap and trade’ model, Daly proposed that adults be given transferable birth licences. Daly foresaw the problems with enforcement, but strangely seems not to have engaged with broader societal views and taboos on having children.

Daly also developed a stance on immigration. While he supported continuing ‘legal’ migration into the USA, he favoured controlling borders and ending illegal immigration. His motivation, however, was not nationalistic but rather a concern for American labour standards. He saw illegal immigration as again serving employers by creating a pool of cheap labour, thereby weakening unions, decreasing wages and increasing profits. Daly’s support for substantial migration levels was partly to provide a generous quota for refugees, especially for those fleeing the consequences of American military and political interventions. Daly’s views on immigration accord with his desire to roll back globalisation.

Victor also includes chapters on Daly’s positions on economic scale, distribution and allocation; measuring the economy; the steady-state economy; money and banking; and globalisation, internationalisation and free trade. These topics may sound dull to non-economists but Victor’s treatment makes clear why they are of critical importance to sustainability advocates. The chapter on economic growth provides very useful global data on the rapid expansion over the last century of the use of natural resources and the generation of wastes.

In his work across these subjects, Daly has faced criticism both from natural allies and from the economic establishment. Marxists have criticised Daly’s steady-state proposals for using free market, capitalist mechanisms. Victor gives special attention to Daly’s frustrating relationship with his brilliant but fickle teacher and mentor, Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen. Daly’s most difficult dealings were not surprisingly with leading neoclassical economists and he would pay a high professional price for challenging the academic status quo. Daly’s work highlights fundamental problems with neoclassical economics, particularly its flawed consideration of the natural environment.

Victor’s biography is relatively light on economic jargon and includes few mathematical formulae. It will, however, best suit those who have a basic understanding of economic terms and theories. This book and ‘Sustainability and the New Economics’ by SPA’s Stephen Williams and Rod Taylor are excellent primers for those wanting to understand how economics should operate in a full world.

 

 

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