In a Hobbesian marketplace full of predators and lambs, an economist offers a case for being a little nicer—and more mindful.
A primary tenet of Buddhism is that, given that all life involves suffering, we are at our best when minimizing another’s travails. In the economic sense, this involves a chain of Pareto improvements—transactions, that is, in which everyone is left better off than before. That’s the ideal, seldom realized. In Buddhist economics, one hopes for the same all-around benefit. To gauge how it works in a particular society, writes Brown (Director, Center for Work, Technology, and Society/Univ. of California), “we look at the distribution of well-being across its population, including equal access to opportunity.” Such an economy hinges on a recognition of the primacy of public goods, including ready access to education and other human-capital resources, and it requires a full reckoning of what an economist would call externalities: the costs of pollution attendant in burning a gallon of gas. In this calculus, the old laws of supply and demand yield to a new understanding, to “new prices and outputs that reflect our new interdependent values.” Naturally, such an understanding also involves a redistribution of wealth within Western economies and from richer to poorer countries, a kind of large-scale international socialism. Lest anyone dismiss Brown’s program as pure pie in the sky—though there is that—she offers the example of the Buddhist country of Bhutan, which “introduced the idea of using a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index in place of GDP to measure the nation’s prosperity and well-being.” And with lessened suffering and a few more dollars in the pocket, why wouldn’t one be measurably happier?
Brown’s portrait of an ideal market is speculative in the ordinary sense of the word, but, even if likely to be dismissed by the financier class, it makes for an attractive prospectus.