Buddhist Economics

NOVEMBER 3, 2008

The human problem of ‘scarce resources and unlimited wants’ is oft-posited as a primary motivation for studying economics. As this phrase makes clear, ‘wants’ (‘preferences’ to use the more usual terminology) are a central part of what we study as economists. Thus the existence, and stability, of those ‘wants / preferences’ merit serious consideration.1

Few of us have difficulty accepting the fundamental nature of our desire for food and shelter. However, many of us might have greater difficulties assigning the same fundamentality to the desire for a particular brand of designer perfume or a digital music player. In fact, it is unclear to what extent one can want what one has never known (or conceived of), and thus, while it is not difficult to imagine any human desiring food and shelter – especially when they are absent, it is hard to imagine a stone-age nomad, say, even being able to conceive of designer perfume or iPods (let alone feel their lack).

It is also telling that so many of the consumer goods, especially those away from the necessity end of the spectrum, appear to require active promotion to the public. Of course it is true, as economists are particularly fond of pointing out, that advertising has an informational component – simply letting you know about the existence and attributes of products. However, it is also hard to deny that advertising also has a substantial ‘persuasive’ component, operating either to create preferences or alter existing ones.

If so this has important implications. In particular, it strongly suggests that our wants aren’t simply given but are, at least to some extent, formed by our experience and choices.2 This raises some deep and important questions for economists to answer – questions with a major bearing on the state and direction of many modern societies. It also has some direct connections with one of the oldest, and most philosophical, of the world’s religious traditions: Buddhism. Central to Buddhist teaching are the Four Noble Truths. Succintly put these are, in order:3

  1. (Dukka – The Nature of Suffering) “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering - in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.”
  2. (Samudaya – The Origin of Suffering) “It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).”
  3. (Nirodha – The Cessation of Suffering) “It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.'”
  4. (Marga – The Path to Cessation of Suffering) “It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.”

Why is this teaching relevant here? First, observe a commonality: both economics and Buddhism takes unsatisfied ‘wants’ (or ‘cravings’) as a source of unhappiness. But how do go about solving this problem? Here economics and Buddhism part ways, and rather dramatically, with the Four Noble Truths presenting a path to the achievement of well-being which is almost diametrically opposite to that advocated by economics.

Specifically, the ‘economics’ approach, is based on taking preferences as given and focusing on generating the goods to satisfy them. By contrast, Buddhism sees ‘wants’ as ultimately unsatisfiable, and instead proposes that the way to well-being is not to satisfy them but to relinquish them – while some ‘cravings’ can be temporarily satisfied more will always be generated, moreover there some fundamental desires, such as the wish not to die, cannot be addressed in the material world.4

Put starkly: economic thought directs our energy and efforts to satisfying our wants / cravings, taking them as given, while Buddhism directs those self-same energies to altering our wants, and views most attempts to satisfy them by obtaining ever more ‘things’ as inevitably doomed to failure – in fact, actively counter-productive as more ‘cravings’ are generated by the very process of satisfaction (and attempting to satisfy them takes up our time and energy).

  1. It is interesting how the term ‘preference’ is studiously neutral, and almost anodyne in comparison with a term such as ‘want’, ‘desire’ or even ‘need’, each of which is a potential synonym. One might imagine, and this is simply conjecture, that the term was intentionally adopted in order to remove any overtone of judgement. After all, across most culture and over much of human history, the formation and satisfaction of ‘preferences’ has been a process laden with ethical, and religious, significance. ↩︎

  2. In economics jargon: preference are endogenous (i.e. determined within the system) rather than exogenous (fixed externally – e.g. by ‘nature’). The study of endogenous preferences is certainly not new. See for example the review of Bowles (1998) or the early incorporation of changeable preferences into the ‘traditional’ framework by Becker and Stigler (1977). ↩︎

  3. These translations of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta are taken from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.piya.html ↩︎

  4. At least, one might argue, not yet: one day, perhaps technology will even give us the ability to live forever either directly or via upload in silico. However, one senses that even then we will find new cravings and, even, to find our so long desired eternal life itself insufferable. ↩︎