Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science
February 14, 2017
Clair Brown's new book offers a reexamination of the current economic paradigm and our responsibilities (to each other, ourselves, and future generations) within it.
Clair Brown has spent her professional life teaching economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books on the subject include American Standards of Living: 1918-1988 and Chips and Change: How Crisis Reshapes the Semiconductor Industry—not exactly fiery diatribes or screeds against the system. Her attention shifted to a more holistic view of the overall economy when she became a practicing Buddhist, and she has since begun a field of Buddhist Economics study at UC Berkeley. This ultimately led to her new book, Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science, being released next Tuesday by Bloomsbury. It all started with a simple question, "How would Buddha teach Econ I?," which she put into the world through a seminar on Buddhist economics at the university. She found the topic was of interest to a much wider group of students than those simply interested in economics, or just in Buddhism or religious studies:
The students energetically engaged in addressing questions about inequality, happiness, and sustainability, teaching me what I already suspected: you don't have to be an economics major and practice Buddhism to join in the conversation about how Buddhism can connect the human spirit and the economy to create well-being and happiness for all people.
Brown writes from a Buddhist perspective because that is her practice, but reminds us there is a form of the golden rule, an emphasis on kindness and compassion and charity in all major religions. There is also a fundamental regard for fairness, justice, and the pursuit of happiness in almost all political ideologies. It is only the philosophy, the predominance of and adherence to, free market capitalism—the idea that free markets, if left unfettered, will produce the best of all outcomes—that embraces unbridled selfishness. It alone takes the view that the only rational motive is a selfish motive, that the interest we should aim to maximize is our own self-interest. And it is that market-is-always-right ethos we all live under the inordinate rule of most days of our life. Because, whether we go to Mosque on Friday, temple on Saturday, or church on Sunday, most of us go to work, compete, and consume in the market economy most other days of the week, and we too often bifurcate ourselves and our values when we go to work, or go shopping.
As a buddhist and an economics professor, I join the chorus of economists asking whether there is an alternative to an economy ruled by desire and ill equipped to address the challenges of environmental deterioration, inequality, and personal suffering.
Buddhist Economics is the end result of that question. And the answer is a resounding "yes." Not only is there an alternative, it has been out there for more than four decades.
The term "Buddhist economics" was first coined by E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher foresaw he problems that come about with excessive reliance on the growth of income, especially overwork and dwindling resources. He argued for a system that valued individual character development and human liberation over an attachment to material goods. In Schumacher's view, the goal of Buddhist economics is "the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption."
It is centered on the core tenet of interdependence, rather than selfish individualism. It is a model that moves beyond consumption and embraces compassion. It asks us to consider the human labor and environmental cost of the shiny gadgets we carry in our pockets. It raises our eyes from a short-sighted understanding of our own well-being to a concern for the well-being of all. It replaces an exploitation of scarcity with a focus on sustainability. On an individual level, it attempts to pursue happiness not through the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, but "shares the view of Aristotle, who held that happiness comes from self-realization and living a worthy and moral life." It is a sometimes uncomfortable reexamination of the economic paradigm and our responsibilities (to each other, ourselves, and future generations) within it. Simply put:
Learning how to live a meaningful life undermines many people's sense of a successful life.
And that is because how we measure success—from the way we accumulate wealth, possessions, titles, and status, all the way to how we measure the GDP of nation-states—is skewed toward an unsustainable and unrealistic ideal. The underlying philosophy that drives markets today ignores the fact the truly "free" markets don't exist (even if, perhaps especially when, they are free of regulation), nor does a completely self-interested, rational "economic man" that those theories are built on. We all desire more meaningful, connected lives, and a healthy planet to live them on and pass down to future generations. Brown helps us questions the philosophical underpinnings of the economic system we exist in, starting on a personal level—which includes the decisions we make in our professional lives. Those arguing against social welfare programs like to cite the ideal personal responsibility, yet that concern ultimately disappears when it comes to the responsibility of powerful people and institutions, where they gladly accept corporate welfare and spurn corporate responsibility.
Our materialistic and wasteful carbon-based global economy has created enormous inequality, with lavish lifestyles for those at the top and desperate lives for those at the bottom. Our relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption has plundered the environment and sickened the earth, our common home. […]
Buddhist economics guides us in how to create a sustainable economy that provides a meaningful life to everyone.
Sustainability and prosperity can and should exist together. Healthy societies require a healthy environment. Buddhist Economics helps us consider these interconnected and interdependent realities, moves us from focusing on how to maximize personal prosperity toward working to ensure shared prosperity. And it couldn't come at a better time.