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 follows his attacks on me by quoting a long letter signed by David. Two people have been confused by this and written me about how surprised they are by “David’s” mean-spirited tone. David has always been civil and generous! The blogger is a different person.

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

Author: julieanelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a dharma teacher in the Boundless Way Zen school; mother of two grown children; and an avid dancer.

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