Book Review: Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science by Clair Brown, Ph.D.

I had hoped to like this book more. After all, the blurbs on its back cover from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, and environmentalist Bill McKibben, all sing its praises. My own view is more mixed, however.

First, let me outline what I liked about the book. The author, University of California-Berkeley economist Clair Brown, correctly diagnoses our society’s greatest errors and failings: its fostering of obscene levels of economic inequality, its despoliation of the planet, its single-minded focus on generating wealth rather than on expanding human well-being and flourishing, and its economic model of corporate obligations to shareholders but not stakeholders.  Dr. Brown offers many sensible alternatives and solutions to these problems, providing reasonable guidelines for reducing wealth inequality, putting the global economy on a sustainable footing, preserving the planet, and maximizing human happiness and potential.  If we followed the author’s exhortations, I have no doubt that our world would be a much better place. I would very much like to live in the world she prescribes.

Now for the things I didn’t like about the book.

First, to my mind, the title doesn’t make any sense. There is no such thing as “Buddhist Economics,” just as there is no such thing as Buddhist Astrophysics or Buddhist Quantum Mechanics. Economics is economics, plain and simple. It’s a social science that tells us how to get from point A to point B: Here’s what one ought to do if one wants to constrain inflation; Here’s what one ought do if one wants full employment; and so on. It tells us the correct means to reach desired goals. What it doesn’t do is tell us what our goals ought to be. That field—the one that tells us what we ought to desire—is ethics rather than economics. What Clair Brown is really arguing for is not a better economics, but a better ethics. She is suggesting a different set of human goals to aim at, rather than a different type of means to get there.

Second, there is nothing in Clair Brown’s ethics that is particularly or uniquely Buddhist.  Pope Francis could probably agree with most of the goals she emphasizes.  So could most secular humanists.  Her vision of the well-lived life is more traditionally Aristotelian than it is traditionally Buddhist. Classical Buddhism had little, if anything, to say about reducing economic inequality or preserving the planet.  Now it happens that many if not most Buddhist modernists would endorse a set of ethics that is in accord with secular humanist, liberal Protestant, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish, and Post-Vatican II Catholic ethics when it comes to issues of preserving the planet, reducing inequality, and fostering human flourishing. That’s because modern humanist ethics are in the air, up for grabs by all, and not because they’re deeply rooted in the Buddhist past. Now there are several traditional Buddhist themes that resonate deeply with modern humanist ethics, including the Buddhist emphases on lovingkindness, compassion, non-greed, non-harming, non-ego aggrandizement, interdependence, and saving all beings. That is the reason why Buddhist luminaries such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh espouse them.  These ideas are the common heritage of modernity and not uniquely Buddhist

Third, this book was written during the Obama presidency when it was still possible to dream the “liberal dream”—that with just a little more effort we could head in the right direction.  We are now plunged into a new Dark Age in which selfishness and greed are valued above all else by those in charge of the national government. We have pulled out of the Paris climate accord and are on the verge of ending our imperfect experiment with universal healthcare. In the despair of the moment, I’m reminded of these lines written by the philosopher Richard Rorty some three decades ago:

“I do not think that we liberals can now imagine a future of ‘human dignity, freedom and peace.’ That is, we cannot tell ourselves a story about how to get from the actual present to such a future. We can picture various socioeconomic setups which would be preferable to the present one. But we have no clear sense of how to get from the actual world to these theoretically possible worlds, and thus no clear idea of what to work for…. This inability to imagine how to get from here to there is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy by a firmer resolve, or more transparent prose, or better philosophical accounts of man, truth, or history. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out. Sometimes things prove to be just as bad as they first looked.…This bad news remains the great intransigent fact of contemporary political speculation, the one that blocks all the liberal scenarios.” (from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989, p. 181-182)

In the end, what Clair Brown fails to do is give us a road map that would tell us how to reorder American politics so that sensible economic proposals, such as the one she is making, can be given a chance. We can guess what some of those political changes would involve—an end to Citizen’s United, an end to gerrymandering, genuine election finance reform, and so on. But how is one to accomplish those things? Today, the kind of transvaluation of values that would be needed before meaningful political change could occur seems farther off than ever. That is what those of us on the “religious left” toil for with little hope and against heavy odds. It’s easy to think up solutions to most of our problems. The problem is, they never live to see the light of day.

To sum up, if you’re interested in suggestions for how to reorder our economic system so that businesses are more socially responsible, so that everyone is guaranteed a living wage, so that our economy is carbon neutral, so that the gap between rich and poor nations is reduced, and so that developing human potential and well-being are more important than growing economic productivity, then this is an excellent book.  If you, like me, happen to be a Buddhist modernist, you will find much that you like and agree with. I am one of those who happen to think our economy ought to be constrained by the emerging universalist humanist modernist ethics, which we as Buddhist modernists share with modernists of other faiths. The problem is, we still need a roadmap of how to draw those who view things differently into the conversation.  I suspect there are no shortcuts, that the road will be hard, that there will be many defeats along the way, and that there is no guarantee of either eventual success or planetary survival.

But try we must.

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