Alternative to Modern Capitalism? Buddhist Economics

So, 12 days since my last post. Preparing for a move to SE Asia has been like bodysurfing a wave that was a tad bit bigger than you – lots of momentum and movement – and it’s pushing you all over the place while you try to keep your head above the foam! But here goes: Buddhist Economics.

One of the essays in Fritz Schumacher’s 1973 Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered is entitled ‘Buddhist Economics’. In it, Schumacher argues that labor, for the classic Western capitalist, is a necessary evil that you want to get the most out of. The less labor you need, the better, aka mechanization. Likewise, labor also sees work as a dis-utility; they would rather have more compensation with less work. So, from the get-go, labor and management/ownership find themselves in contrary positions. This is neither harmonious, nor engendering an organizational atmosphere where everyone feels they are working for a common goal.

However, a Buddhist take on economics, Schumacher argues, is quite different.

“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. …To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people….

The Indian philosopher and economist J.C. Kumarappa sums the matter up as follows:

If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of. It directs his free will along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality.

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.”

And yet, Schumacher goes on, modern capitalism desires a certain percentage of the labor force to be unemployed, for various economic reasons.

Now, I ask you, fellow Christians: which sounds more like the view of work in the Scriptures we call the Old Testament: modern capitalism or Schumacher’s Buddhist economics?

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Schumacher: the limitations of economics to reflect reality

“I’ll post it in a few days.” A few days! I am having trouble getting back to my blog as I am being subsumed under a wave of a zillion things to do as I wrap up my job pastoring a fantastic church in rural Pennsylvania, at the same time that I have another zillion things to do preparing for a move to SE Asia.

In any event, here is E.F. Schumacher’s quote, written in 1973, regarding the short-sightedness of modern economic activity: (Well, I think this is the one I had in mind 10 days ago!)

“Economics, moreover, deals with goods in accordance with their market value and not in accordance with what they really are. The same rules and criteria are applied to primary goods, which man has to win from nature, and secondary goods, which presuppose the existence of primary goods and are manufactured from them. All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world. (Note from Todd: you can monetize wood, but when there’s no forest left, money does not equal trees anymore).

Another way of stating this is to say that economics deals with goods and services from the point of view of the market, where willing buyer meets willing seller. The buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been produced. His sole concern is to obtain the best value for his money.

The market therefore represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself.

….economists have felt entitled… to treat the entire framework within which economic activity takes place as a given, that is that is to say, as permanent and indestructible. It was no part of their job and, indeed, of their professional competence, to study the effects of economic activity upon the framework. Since there is now increasing evidence of environmental deterioration, particularly in living nature, the entire outlook and methodology of economics is being called into question. The study of economics is too narrow and too fragmentary to lead to valid insights…”

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 46, 54).

Fritz Schumacher’s 1973 ‘Small is Beautiful’

I’ve been reading an interesting book lately: E.F. “Fritz” Schumacher’s 1973 Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. Schumacher was a British economist for England’s coal industry. His book argues that economics, and institutions in general, should be built upon a “human scale.” Schumacher observed that our modern human institutions tend to grow to such a scale that they are like frankenstein monsters which grow so large that they come back upon their masters and devour them (my image, not his). Another way you could put it is that our economies/institutions/etc cease being our servants and instead become our masters. Sudddenly the humans don’t matter in the decision-making, it’s the self-perpetuation of the larger structures we’ve created. Our creations come to lord it over us and be too big for us to control or direct in a way to promote human thriving.

It’s a very interesting book, and one that drew quite a bit of interest in the world of economists and international development policy makers back when it was written.

Schumacher argues for things like:

De-centralized, local decision making that takes the long-term good of the community as its goal, not short-term profits for a select few in some faraway metropolis.

A critique of systems that grow too gigantic or destructive of human and ecological well-being.

The need for some limiting principle, to enable a society at some point to legitimately say “enough!”

The recognition that economic profit is not the grounding, priniciple manner to gauge human well-being and the failure of modern economic thought to calculate non-economic factors into policy-makers’ decisions

The concept of intermediate technology – simple, nonviolent and controllable – (or, simple, cheap, small, safe): useful in the local situation and not forcing us to develop giant schemes

A changed view of labor and production where work is elevated to a vocation and labor and ownership aren’t mutually contradictory antagonists

The contention that Third World poverty is a question of “two million villages,” as Gandhi argued, and thus that concentrated endeavors in urban settings merely concentrated the benefits into the hands of a very select few, and the villages stayed in abject poverty

The contention that humanity should adapt within Earth’s ecosystems instead of trying to dominate (and typically destroy) them

The need to return to the Four Cardinal virtues:  prudential, justitia, fortitudo, and temperantia

As I said, it’s a very interesting read, and I’ll include some excerpts in the next few blogs.