The Reincarnation of Buddhist Economics

ak-16_money_buddha_on_bagAre Buddhist Economics the solution to our current economic plight?

By K. I. Woo

The ravages of the current global economic crisis are causing many people to rethink whether capitalism and unbridled expansion are the proper recipes for sustainable economic growth.

Here in Thailand, academics and scholars have held numerous “Buddhist economics” seminars to consider whether these set of principles, first developed by British-based economist E F Schumacher more than 50 years ago, are a viable alternative.

In 1955, Schumacher was invited to Burma as an economic consultant, where he began developing his Buddhist economics principles that are today being proclaimed as a possible mitigator of the current global economic crisis.

His essay “Buddhist Economics”, which was first published in 1966, and his book Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, have now been published in 27 languages and are recognised as basic Buddhist economics compendiums that may provide answers to the world’s current economic woes.

One of Schumacher’s main arguments in Small Is Beautiful is that we cannot consider our technological production problems solved if we are required to recklessly erode our finite natural capital and deprive future generations of its benefits.

Modern economists, Schumacher said, consider consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production and labour and capital as the means. They also tend to determine a nation’s standard of living by the amount of annual consumption, and assume that someone who consumes more is better off than someone who consumes less.

Buddhist economics, according to Schumacher, believes that ownership and consumption of goods is a means to an end, and it also is a systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means. The aim should be to obtain the maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption,” he said.

In Thailand, the Venerable P A Payutto also produced a very important and widely-read book, Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way For the Market Place, in 1994. This Thai book (translated into English) offers a Buddhist perspective on the subject of economics.

Payutto doesn’t try to present a comprehensive Buddhist economic theory, but his treatise provides many tools for reflecting upon, and ways to look at, economic questions based on a considered appreciation of the way things are and the way we are.

Another striking difference between modern economics and Buddhist economics, Schumacher said, arises over the use of natural resources. A modern economist, he said, tends to count nothing as an expenditure, other than human effort. “He does not seem to mind how much mineral matter he wastes and, far worse, how much living matter he destroys. He does not seem to realise at all that human life is a dependent part of an ecosystem of many different forms of life.”

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2 Responses to The Reincarnation of Buddhist Economics

  1. The reality is that Western Capitalism went belly-up last year and the USA and other countries dependent on American markets have thrown up a smoke screen to present the facade of having salvaged greed from the brink of destruction.
    American capitalism collapsed last year. It failed.
    Greed got exposed as a flimsy foundation for the building of a civilization.
    Truly, the time is coming when the whole world will be plunged into chaos and survival will be a local and regional challenge.
    How many of us are prepared?
    Well, I would say that Tripurari Maharaja and his settlement in the mountains of California would be a much better place to be when the bottom falls out of modern capitalism than in the bowels of a big city that will quickly become a nightmare theater.
    The END IS NEAR!!! Millions will starve to death. People will kill each other for their food.

  2. I would not say that Buddhist economics per se are the solution to the world’s current economic woes, but the Buddhist idea that ethics cannot be separated from economics, definitely. Clearly the metrics for defining success on a societal level (such as GDP) that do not take into account the abstract, subjective qualities like satisfaction, happiness, etc., are responsible for at least part of the mess we’re in. Ignoring the not-so-obvious human and environmental costs results in a totally skewed view of the consequences of our economic activity; we think all is peachy as long as the growth rate is on the positive side without realizing that there are many negatives associated with positive growth. Finally those negatives are being given the attention they are due for we are beginning to see that they amount to a substantial piece of the quality of life puzzle.

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