Is There a “Buddhist Economics”?

Conversations with David Loy, Clair Brown and others…

It’s been an interesting couple weeks. Buddhist scholar David Loy and I, along with Jeff Seul, engaged in an online conversation on the One Earth Sangha website about Buddhism and economics. UC Berkeley economist Clair Brown and I, meanwhile, engaged in an email conversation about her new book on the topic.

In the same couple weeks, I also find that I’ve been called a “rubbish”-writing, rent-seeking “neoliberal economist” by a Buddhist blogger.* But, lest you think I only get criticism from the left side of the political spectrum, I’ve also just recently been labeled as an impractical, hopelessly idealistic “windbag” by a well-known actual neoliberal economist.**

What is my crime, in their eyes? I’ve pointed out that people and companies, when facing choices, may and often do factor in considerations other than short-term financial self-interest. This is heresy to those who believe that corporations are in essence evil. You can read their reasons for believing this for yourself. I have the impression, however, that some of the resistance to what I write comes from the fact that recognizing a more open and dynamic reality would deprive a virtuous “us” of an easy enemy “them,” and make drawing battle lines less simple. On the other hand, the idea that people and institutions may act out of a knowledge of interdependence is heresy to the neoclassical mainstream, because it messes with their belief that assuming self-interest is somehow the scientific and rigorous thing to do.

Yet I don’t advocate considering people or corporations to be naturally altruistic, either. Clair Brown’s you tube video asserts that “human nature is kind and altruistic.” I would put it differently, reminding us that the poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance are also ever-present, and that their manifestation is not confined to particular economic sectors or social groups.

In short, I’d like to see us become more skeptical about our beliefs in underlying good and bad “natures,” and more intent on investigating our actual emergent world.

The comment sections on both my own blog and the One Earth Sangha website are open, so I hope others join the conversation!

*I’m afraid my original post may have inadvertently caused needless damage to David Loy’s reputation. The blogger I mention here, Shaun Bartone, followed his attacks on me by quoting a long letter signed by David. Two people were confused by this and wrote me about how surprised they are by “David’s” mean-spirited tone. David has always been civil and generous! Shaun has since edited his blog to make this distinction clear.

**Anne Krueger, Review of The Oxford Handbook of Professional Ethics, Journal of Economic Literature 55(1) March 2017, 209-216.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

One thought on “Is There a “Buddhist Economics”?”

  1. Hello. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I tend to believe that humans are starting from self-interest, but that our understanding of our self-interest changes depending on our conditions, as well as an expansion of what constitutes self-interest through our own consciousness of mutual and material relationships, in part due to socialization. As human beings, we all start from self-interest, and that self-interest is expanded and negotiated with as we recognize our roles in society. Couple that with the realities of our current system, and few consider it greedy to see after the interests of their own group or country before and to the exclusion of others, even if we recognize that it would be better if everyone could have a minimum of human dignity.

    I also believe that human beings are not operating under normal conditions when institutions conspire to create structural scarcity, and also manufacture the perception of scarcity. In my view, the slave trades definitively removed the bottom in terms of what is possible when one begins to descend the social ladder. It has become very possible for human beings to be deprived of almost all freedom and literally worked to death, if they are not on the winning side of the economic race, and for this state of affairs to be considered normal and even redemptive. In such conditions, the line between greed and the management of social risk can become blurred. All that to say that greed is not necessarily pathological in an enclosure.


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