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Buddhist Economics

Last updated May 9, 2023 Edit Source

The Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character

See also: Buddhism, economics, Tools for Conviviality


# On Labour

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold:

  1. to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties;
  2. to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task;
  3. and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence

To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

There are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.

“The craftsman himself can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”

(Ananda Coomaraswamy)

If a man has no chance of obtaining work he is in a desperate position, not simply because he lacks an income but because he lacks this nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work which nothing can replace.

In this framing of economics, the pursuit of work as an integral part of character is in fact a paratelic pursuit.

# On well-being

The modern economist is used to measuring the “standard of living” by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is “better off” than a man who consumes less.

A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.

The latter matches my own personal aesthetics for beauty and form much better.

# On natural resources

Just as a modern European economist would not consider it a great achievement if all European art treasures were sold to America at attractive prices, so the Buddhist economist would insist that a population basing its economic life on non-renewable fuels is living parasitically, on capital instead of income.

# Waste Your Time, Your Life May Depend On It

The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 8

What precisely are we saving time to do?

Within the order that generates the tyranny of tiny tasks, the one which privileges efficiency and tempts us with the promise of time-saved for the sake of some nebulous higher purpose, a human being is valuable only to the degree that they become sites of automated consumption and on-demand productivity.

This external order also fosters a corresponding mode of being within us. We come to understand our own experience according to the logic of techno-economic order. We presume that our worth is bound up with our productivity. We enter into an adversarial relationship with time. We develop a distaste for rest. We forget how to play. Our relationships are instrumentalized. The world becomes to us, in  Hartmut Rosa’s memorable phrase, nothing more than a series of points of aggressions, “all matters to be settled, attended to, mastered, completed, resolved, gotten out of the way.”

Care is ultimately what transforms the quality of our involvement and engagement with the world so that we pass from “getting things done” to living.