Thursday, June 07, 2007

Free Markets and Democracy: What Would Buddha Do?

(reflections on ideas heard on a broadcast of SPEAKING OF FAITH. Excerpts are taken from transcripts available at the show's web site. See LINKS in the right hand column of this blog.)

In a recent broadcast of the radio show SPEAKING OF FAITH, host Krista Tippett interviewed journalist Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. In his conversation with host Krista Tippett, Mishra lumps Marx and Adam Smith together for their grand schemes to change society, and he contrasts them with the Buddha's program for changing society through individuals' responses to the worlds around them:

Mr. Mishra: The pursuit of these utopias in the last sort of 200, 300 years — and they've been pursued most, I think, fanatically in the last 200 years than at any other time, whether, you know, it's the sort of Nazi utopia, the Thousand Year Reich, which was the most sort of disreputable of them all, but also the communist utopia. And now, of course, you see the pursuit of another kind of utopia, the idea of individual happiness through consumption, through desire, and a kind of individual desire which, in the end, really does not respect any limits. It can go to any lengths to fulfill itself. So it is actually, in the end, a recipe for war and violence because you are going to need…

Ms. Tippett: And even just plain old unhappiness.

Mr. Mishra: Plain old unhappiness. Exactly. Because, you know, once again, the whole idea of the person who's desiring something yesterday is not the same person today. And when he gets the thing he desires, he'll have already moved on, so he'll be unhappy again.

I'm not used to lumping Adam Smith and the free market with those evil utopians, because communists and fascists speak of subsuming individuals in the Party, while Smith imagines the collective effect of individuals' own decisions day to day. Without denying that free markets give free rein to individual choice, Mishra has made an observation that rings true. Most interesting to me is his excerpt from Adam Smith's other book that preceded Wealth of Nations, the Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759:

The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, admires the condition of the rich. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself forever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. Through the whole of his life, he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose, which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age, he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. Power and riches appear, then, to be what they are, enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death.

In choosing to compare "power and riches" to "enormous machines," Smith seconds Mishra's thought that free enterprise also constitutes an over-arching utopian program. Of course, a favorite author of mine, business historian John Steele Gordon, would point out that the free market system nullified half of Smith's paragraph above within 150 years of his writing it, as it produced answers to winter storms, diseases, danger, and anxiety.

Another interesting portion of the discussion followed Krista Tippett's "devil's advocate" question. Mishra had just contrasted the Alexander / Napoleon / Hitler model of leadership to that of Indian prince Ashoka, whose conquest and massacres left him suddenly sick at heart, and he managed his empire for years after with sharp limits on state violence. But he's not remembered. She asks:

Ms. Tippett: [A]n American, a modern American, might look at this history you tell and might still compare someone like Alexander and Ashoka, or 21st-century America and India, and say it's clear which version of reality, which ethos is on the winning side. Right? They would say simply this ethos of acquisition and building and progress and power is what, in fact, works in this world we inhabit. Now, how would you respond to that?

Mr. Mishra: Well, I'd very quickly challenge the notion that it works. Where is the evidence that it works? I mean, the 21st century has not started off very well. What I do see is a whole lot of confusion, a whole lot of bewilderment and a whole lot of hatred, a whole lot of violence out there. And, you know, even people, even societies that are supposedly doing extremely well, such as China or India, when you actually start thinking about 20, even 20, 30 years in the future, you wonder about their big populations, you wonder about their great needs. What will these societies need once they come into their own as middle class consumers of the kind people in America are? The amount of oil they would need, amount of energy resources they will have to find to sustain their populations at the standard of living they will have arrived at at that point, if they do arrive at that standard of living. And where is that oil going to come from? You know, I think it's unsustainable, and that's why we're heading towards, and we already have, we already live in such, sort of, violent times. So I'm completely unpersuaded by the notion that the systems we have are working. The fact of power obscures the failures, but the fact that you have to use violence all the time, you know, really points to the failure of all these systems in many ways.

When Tippett asks what Buddha might say about contemporary America and the problems we face with Islamist terrorists, Mishra's responses were not so earth-shattering. He points to the growth (in size, in resources, in intrusivenss) of federal government, and its distance from the decisions of ordinary Americans. He thinks the Buddha's approach would "devolve" decision-making to more local bodies -- and that sounds very Constitutional to me. About the Islamists, Mishra shows no sympathy to the terrorist organizations or leaders, and he decries what they've done in places where he grew up, Kashmir and India (where he speaks of Hindu Nationalists as well as the Islamists), but he offers an understanding of how the cynical leaders gain control of their young recruits:

I knew about the corruptions of jihad, of the leaders grown fat on generous donations from foreign and local patrons, sending young men to poorly paid martyrdoms in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But I hadn't expected to be moved by the casual sight in one madrasa of six young men sleeping on tattered sheets on the floor. I hadn't thought I would be saddened to think of the human waste they represented, the young men whose ancestors had once built one of the greatest civilizations of the world and who now lived in dysfunctional societies beholden to or in fear of America.

The other kind of future once laid out for them had failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, practice birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car and pay taxes. There were not nearly enough secular schools to educate these young men in the ways of the modern world, and few jobs awaited those who had been educated.

But the fantasy of modernity, held up by their state and supported by the international political and economic system, had been powerful enough to expel and uproot them from their native villages. Having lost the protection of their old moral order, their particular bonds and forms of authority, they hoped to stave off chaos and degeneration by joining such authoritarian movements as Hindu nationalism and radical Islam, by surrendering their dreams to demagogues like Bin Laden.

It's a book I'm now interested in reading.

Also interesting: I paraphrased a portion of another broadcast of the show. While I didn't like the guest I was hearing that time -- (a first!) -- I liked this quotation from Diedrich Bonhoeffer: "People who love the community that they create will cause it to fail; people who love those around them will create a community wherever they go." Immediately, this calls to mind my boy John Winthrop, whose efforts to create a loving Christian community, a "City on a Hill" in 1630s New England, unravelled one disaffected group at a time as he tried with increasing desperation to make them fit his plan.

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