A steady state is an economy or society where the goal is sustainable and equitable human well-being rather than economic growth. In order to stay within biophysical limits the goal is for the economy to reach an optimal size and then remain steady or mildly fluctuating – thus ensuring economic stability (no boom and bust cycles) ecological sustainability and a high quality of life for all. Steady state economics is a new field of ecological economics (itself pretty new) and is so far theoretical, there are no purposeful steady states yet.
Because of the state intervention required to transition to and maintain a steady state, many skeptical newbies to the concept get the impression that steady state economics is some form of radical communism in disguise.
Don’t worry: it isn’t.
Two very key foundations of a steady state (stable GDP and relative equality) are not embraced by communist nations at all. You only have to look at how fast China and Russia are growing, and how committed to the growth cause they are, to see the stark distinction between steady state economics and communism. But if you need further evidence, then examine equality levels. A steady state requires a high level of equality, but Russia – one of the major communist nations – is actually the most unequal nation in the word.
So steady state economics does not sit well with communism. What about capitalism?
It is clear that free market capitalism (aka neoliberalism) cannot support a steady state. This is simply because neoliberalism is all about letting the market handle everything by privatising public services and resources, having minimum state intervention and pursuing economic growth at all costs. A steady state consists of a mixture of the public, private and voluntary sectors but the public sector is given more focus than it currently receives in the UK and USA. A stable GDP (while ensuring a high quality of life) is a challenge that cannot be handled by the market alone, and needs a fair amount of state intervention – for example, by implementing bans, taxes, subsidies and grants. This means that free market capitalism doesn’t sit well with steady state economics either.
But that isn’t the only form of capitalism. Some EU nations such as Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway operate within a type of capitalism that allows a fairly high level of environmental protection as well as extensive public services, and they achieve high average well being. However it’s worth noting that while these countries are a lot more sustainable than most MEDCs, they are still not actually sustainable.
Other writers and thinkers on this topic may tell you that a steady state can grow from any political framework, and is applicable to capitalist and communist societies. After much thought, I’ve decided I disagree.
In my opinion, ‘steady state’ represents an entirely new political-economic framework that is independent from any existing model. I guess you could place it slightly left of the centre on the political spectrum.
I realise that there are many other political models which I haven’t discussed. I think it’s fairly self evident that the extremes of anarchy and fascism wouldn’t work for a steady state. Socialism has a bit more potential, but I still think of ‘steady state’ as it’s own new and distinct model. This is just my opinion however, which may or may not be shared by experts in steady state economics.
A note on equality:
When I say that a steady state has a high level of equality, I do not mean absolute equality. It wouldn’t make any sense for cleaners and lawyers to be paid the same salary, for example. What I mean is ‘a lot more equal than most countries currently are’. In a steady state, there would still be variations in wealth, but the gap between the richest and poorest in a society would be much smaller. So, no one would be rich enough to have a private jet and three mansions, and no one would be so poor they couldn’t eat healthily or gain an education. You could even say the upper and working classes would be squashed into the middle.
A note on democracy:
Personally, I think a steady state could only exist with a democracy. This is because I see autonomy and active citizenship as key components of well-being. Also non-democratic systems are naturally susceptible to corruption and tend to possess a general disregard for the well-being of their citizens. I think that true democracy is fundamental to a healthy and vibrant society. What we have in the UK today is not a true democracy, as corporations have way too much influence over governmental policy. In a steady state, the government would be legally bound to operate according to the wishes of the people, and polls, surveys, votes, petitions, campaigns, marches and protests would all be common and encouraged as valuable avenues for political engagement.
So what do you think?
Is steady state economics a whole new model, distinct from capitalism, communism and others?
Or is it more of an operating system that can work within an existing framework?