How imperative are the Joneses?

Economic Growth between Desire and Social Coercion

Worldwide, economic growth is a prominent goal, despite its severe conflicts with ecological sustainability. Are ‘growth policies’ only a question of political or individual will, or do ‘growth imperatives’ exist that make them ‘inescapable’? And why do people consume ever more, even in ‘rich’ countries? These questions are of political relevance, discussed since long – and essentially contested, especially along the dimensions free will vs. social coercion, and ‘socio-cultural’ influences vs.‘economic’ reasons.

We carefully derive definitions of the key terms ‘social coercion’ and ‘growth imperative’, referring to the concept of methodological individualism. Based on the assumption derived elsewhere that an economic growth imperative actually exists, we analyze some socio-cultural influences on individual behavior, dividing the debate into three subgroups. On the demand side, we study why people seemingly consume beyond basic needs to compare with others for social and cultural reasons, or to increase opportunities, while on the supply side, we analyze why people work more than needed given their consumption plans.

When socio-cultural influences are truly forceful, they are usually based on economic pressure. Also, accumulation and certain consumption decisions can be traced back to quite ‘rational’ motives, making an often demanded ‘cultural transformation’ towards sufficiency a difficult project. Reproductive considerations (mating) and technology as households’ investment may be considerably underestimated as consumption motives, the second probably causing a positive feedback loop. We conclude that, with regard to inescapability, socio-cultural mechanisms are secondary, compared with economic pressure on individuals.



Discussion Paper


 ISSN 2366-7753

Published in

 VÖÖ Discussion Papers

Zoe Authors

  • Dr Oliver Richters

    Post-Doc, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research