Buddhist Economics: How to Start Prioritizing People Over Products and Creativity Over Consumption

“Work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

Much has been said about the difference between money and wealth and how we, as individuals, can make more of the latter, but the divergence between the two is arguably even more important the larger scale of nations and the global economy. What does it really mean to create wealth for people — for humanity — as opposed to money for governments and corporations?

That’s precisely what the influential German-born British economist, statistician, Rhodes Scholar, and economic theorist E. F. Schumacher explores in his seminal 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (public library) — a magnificent collection of essays at the intersection of economics, ethics, and environmental awareness, which earned Schumacher the prestigious Prix Européen de l’Essai Charles Veillon award and was deemed by The Times Literary Supplement one of the 100 most important books published since WWII. Sharing an ideological kinship with such influential minds as Tolstoy and Gandhi, Schumacher’s is a masterwork of intelligent counterculture, applying history’s deepest, most timeless wisdom to the most pressing issues of modern life in an effort to educate, elevate and enlighten.

One of the most compelling essays in the book, titled “Buddhist Economics,” applies spiritual principles and moral purpose to the question of wealth….

Traditional Western economics, Schumacher argues, is bedeviled by a self-righteousness of sorts that blinds us to this fact — a fundamental fallacy that considers “goods as more important than people and consumption as more important than creative activity.” He writes:

“Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitations.”

From this stems our chronic desire to avoid work and the difficulty of finding truly fulfilling work that aligns with our sense of purpose. Schumacher paints the backdrop for the modern malady of overwork:

“The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labor”… Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialization, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.”

Schumacher contrasts this with the Buddhist perspective:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanization which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.