13 Jul 2014

Buddhist Economics?

I've been a Buddhist for 20 years and a member of a Buddhist Order for 9 years. I'm always intrigued when the idea of Buddhist Economics comes up. Of course we'd all like to see some alternative to the gross utilitarianism of Neolibertarian economics. But what is Buddhist economics? Well, given that the Buddhists ideal is a monk who neither handles money nor engages in economic activity, Buddhist economics is at best an abstraction.

Perhaps we could get an idea of what Buddhist economics are like from looking at countries that are traditionally Buddhist?

We have the Theravādin countries including: Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. They are either outright military dictatorships with command economies, or the military plays an prominent role in running the country (Thailand is presently under martial law). In fact there's nothing about any of these countries that would want to make us emulate their economic policies. They are poor, repressive and retrogressive. The whole of South-east Asia was a war-zone for decades and of course Cambodia gave us Pol Pot. Modern Western economics is sometimes criticised for prioritising profit over people, but there's nothing here to inspire us.

Thailand has been particularly in the news for opposing the ordination of women (despite there being no valid theological argument against it). When some Australian monks took it upon themselves to ordain some women, there Thai head office threw them out of their organisation and made sure that non of the new nuns were allowed to travel to Thailand. Since the clergy is a branch of the government their word is virtually law.

What about those countries which practice a form of Buddhism more influenced by compassion (Mahāyāna Buddhism), including: China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea and Tibet. I'm not sure I could briefly describe China's current economics, but what we do know is that their cities are the most polluted in the world, that they certainly do not prioritise people and the government is authoritarian and repressive. Japan is a basket-case economically and it will be many decades before they pay off their 200+% government debt. Vietnam is a 3rd world country which also has a history of repression, it is famous as the home of monks who immolated themselves as a political protest against political oppression. Tibet was a feudal state until it was taken over by China. Korea is a country of two halves. The North needs no commentary: insane military ruler and repression on a scale seldom seen. The South was mugged by the World Bank/IMF gang in the 1980s and has yet to really recover. The one plus I can think of is that when the government was bankrupted by the machinations of the Western libertarians, the women of South Korea donated their gold jewellery to the nation to help pay off the debts. I think that might have been the influence of Buddhism.

Nepal might be included in the list, since there are Buddhists living there, but their ruling family were Hindus until relatively recently so they're not likely to be practising Buddhist economics. Nepal was in the news a few years ago when the crown prince murdered most of his family to get to the throne. And the country was torn apart by a violent Marxist insurgency for decades, though things seem to have settled down now.

The one Buddhist country that is sometimes held up as an example of economic sanity is Bhutan. In Bhutan they coined the term "gross national happiness". But that happiness is only for the Bhutanese and they are busy persecuting Nepalese refugees who fled from the Marxist insurgency. The Bhutanese state, like old Tibet, was until recently a feudal state in which peasants were indoctrinated into believing that the priestly royalty were gods. In Bhutan this has made the attempted transition to democracy difficult because the peasants don't want to vote - they are too busy prostrating themselves to their god-king to actually want self-determination.

In all of these countries the monasteries gradually suck money out of the economy through tax free donations, sometimes of staggering proportions. In Tibet and Nepal the myth of god-kings who reincarnate is used to control that wealth. In Japan they abandoned celibacy and started handing down monastic wealth and power in patriarchal structures. In other countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand the monasteries were simply nationalised.

So much for Buddhist economics in practice: totalitarianism, feudalism, and systematic economic oppression of women and racial minorities and the poor. So far it's not looking good. Why then are we still talking about Buddhist Economics? A lot of it has to do with the collision of tradition Asian Buddhism with Western Modernity. The outlines of chimera that has resulted have been delineated in David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism (note the emphasis in the title).

One of the products of Buddhist Modernism is a little book by E. F. Schumacher which has a chapter entitled Buddhist Economics. The books is seriously anachronistic with respect to Buddhism and hopelessly sentimental. Schumacher's analysis is a mishmash of ideas. He says for example:
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness [sic] by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. 

But this is not really a Buddhist point of view, since as I say Buddhism says that ideally one ought to disengage from economic activities of all kinds. Schumacher actually sounds more like a Marxist than a Buddhist. The article by Maria Popova praising Schumacher that sparked this response says:
Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. 
And links this to something that Gandhi said. But Gandhi was not a Buddhist and persistently opposed the Buddhist idealism of Dr Ambedkar when the two of them were helping to form the new Indian state (Ambedkar wrote the new constitution of India and was forced to make concessions to Gandhi's middle class Hinduism).

But here's the thing. Buddhists never talk about the essence of civilisation or character for that matter. The terms here are Romantic. One of McMahan's observations is the extent to which the values of Romanticism, Protestantism, and Rationalism are expressed by Buddhist Modernists as though they are entirely consistent with Buddhism; or indeed as though such values are Buddhist values. By blurring the distinctions, people like Schumacher are able to "speak for Buddhism". But this is a form of intellectual colonialism or cultural appropriation. By presenting Romantic/Marxist ideas as Buddhist Schumacher surfs the wave of enthusiasm for Buddhism that existed in the 1970s when he was writing. Perhaps he even believed that the ideas he was articulating really did represent Buddhism. But he appears to be entirely ignorant of the history of Buddhism and the economics of Buddhist countries. The modern day situation is replicated in the past, with perhaps a more extreme concentration of wealth and power and more repressive regimes.

In reality there is no such thing as Buddhist economics. Schumacher is not a Buddhist and presents Romantic, Humanist, and Marxist economic values as Buddhist values. In practice Buddhist countries have adopted a range of economics: though they lean towards the extreme right-wing ends of the economic spectrum: to fascism and feudalism. There is not a single example in the 2500 year history of Buddhism of a state which ran its economy in a way I would wish modern day Britain to emulate!

What we wish is that society in general would make real the Romantic ideals of Buddhists: i.e. to institute a Buddhist utopia that no Buddhist state has ever managed to bring about. Perhaps we think that with all their power and wealth modern Western states will manage what Buddhists have never managed for themselves. And isn't this just the kind of hopelessly naive fantasy that we expect from religious people? Buddhists make up less than 1% of the population of Western countries, and until recently we were outnumbered by Jedi in the UK (2001 Census recorded 0.3% Buddhist; 0.7% Jedi).

I too would certainly like to see our societies change towards liberal values. Unfortunately libertarianism dominates at present. Do we really think it makes sense to present people with a religious alternative in the present day, when the "no religion" is the fastest growing census category; when religious extremists are in the news every day destroying the lives of ordinary people in Burma and the Middle-East; when religion stands for everything that liberals reject these days? How stupid do we have to be to fall for this rhetoric. I'm a committed Buddhist and I'd vote for secularism and freedom of conscience, before I ever voted for a Buddhist state. Religion and power is a bad combination and this is so self-evident in the present that it hardly needs arguing.

To me "Buddhist Economics" is a distraction. Let's just talk about economics and if we want to look at values other than profit then let's not queer the pitch by throwing religious utopianism into the mix! People matter because they are people.

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Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.