The Pragmatic Buddhist Approach to Politics and Economics

In today’s issue of the Free Market Buddhist, a question of method in approaching political questions (and why we shouldn’t assume the Buddha wanted us to be socialists), the role of principle in Buddhism and libertarianism, and one way to begin exploring Buddhist philosophy if you’re new to the topic.

Understanding the Buddha as a Political Pragmatist

The Buddha was a pragmatist. You can see this in the structure of the Four Noble Truths. He starts by stating the problem, then gives the cause of the problem, then notes that it can be solved, and finally offers a set of tools for succeeding in solving it. That the path to the end of stress is the fourth of the four truths tells us that what ultimately matters isn't the path itself, but the existence, cause, and possible end of stress.

In other words, the Buddha began with the goal and then worked out a way to get there. We ought to keep that in mind when thinking about politics. Governments are tools for accomplishing an end. We have them because they're for something. If we don't keep a clear picture of what we're trying to overcome, as well as the causes of it, we risk clinging to tools and methods that either aren't as effective as alternatives, or actually make the problem worse.

So what does the Buddha say are the goals of government? What are the problems he wants to overcome? The best place to look for this is when he's giving advice to kings on how to rule well.

When the Buddha is speaking to kings or describing the ideal king, his interest is in articulating the best possible society and telling them to take steps to achieve that. Often, that advice is simply to follow the precepts, as in this representative passage from Cakkavatti Sutta. In this sutta, the Buddha tells the story of King Daḷhanemi, the ideal ruler who embodies Buddhist values in his role as leader of his nation.

And any opposing rulers of the eastern quarter came to the wheel-turning monarch and said, ‘Come, great king! Welcome, great king! We are yours, great king, instruct us.’ The wheel-turning monarch said, ‘Do not kill living creatures. Do not steal. Do not commit sexual misconduct. Do not lie. Do not drink alcohol. Maintain the current level of taxation.’ And so the opposing rulers of the eastern quarter became his vassals.

He's telling rulers that they ought to behave like good Buddhists. This does raise some issues for the very existence of governments, whether monarchies or democracies, as I've noted elsewhere. And the call to not raise taxes is difficult to square with many contemporary Buddhist activists in the West voting to increase taxes substantially, especially when the current tax burden in the US is already far greater than was typical at the Buddha's time. Setting those issues aside, though, notice that "follow the precepts, king" doesn't tell us much about the specifics of governing or what the king should aim at in his kingdom, instead of in his own life.

Elsewhere in the same sutta, however, we get this.

Well then, my dear, relying only on principle—honoring, respecting, and venerating principle, having principle as your flag, banner, and authority—provide just protection and security for your court, troops, aristocrats, vassals, brahmins and householders, people of town and country, ascetics and brahmins, beasts and birds. Do not let injustice prevail in the realm. Pay money to the penniless in the realm.

Here is a much clearer set of specifically political goals. Stick to principle in the way you rule. Make sure the people are secure. Prevent injustice. Ensure the poor aren’t destitute. This last matters not just because compassion says we shouldn't let people starve when we can prevent it, but also because failing to prevent it will lead to other, significant social problems.

And so, mendicants, from not paying money to the penniless, all these things became widespread—poverty, theft, swords, killing, lying, backbiting, sexual misconduct, harsh speech and talking nonsense, desire and ill will, wrong view, illicit desire, immoral greed, and wrong thoughts, and lack of due respect for mother and father, ascetics and brahmins, and failure to honor the elders in the family.

In other words, widespread poverty makes it more likely that the people of the realm will find it difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate and practice Buddhist values, and so will find it difficult, if not impossible, to progress on the path towards enlightenment.

The second century philosopher Nagarjuna, one of the most influential figures in Buddhist history, said much the same in his advice to King Udayi on how to run his kingdom well. Peter Harvey, in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, pulls that advice together as follows:

Cause the blind, the sick, the lowly, The protectorless, the wretched And the crippled equally to attain Food and drink without interruption. (verse 320)

Always care compassionately for The sick, the unprotected, those stricken With suffering, the lowly and the poor And take special care to nourish them. (verse 243)

Provide extensive care For the persecuted, the victims (of disasters), The stricken and diseased, And for worldly beings in conquered areas. (verse 251)

Provide stricken farmers With seeds and sustenance, Eliminate high taxes By reducing their rate. (verse 252)

Eliminate thieves and robbers In your own and others' countries. Please set prices fairly and keep Profits level (when things are scarce). (verse 254)

Make sure the people have enough to eat, that they have access to health care, that the persecuted are protected, that you help ameliorate the impact of natural disasters, ensure farmers can grow food, and that taxes aren't burdensome. (In this case even calling for them to be lowered, not just maintained.) Address violence and theft, and make sure goods are affordable and not scarce.

  • Reframing this in the diagnostic structure of the Four Noble Truths, we get

  • Suffering exists within the polity.

  • Injustice and poverty are the cause of this suffering.

  • It is possible to end, or at least dramatically reduce, injustice and poverty.

  • The government can accomplish this by undertaking certain actions aimed at ensuring the people have enough to eat, access to care, are buffered from disasters, aren't constantly under threat of violence and theft, etc.

Putting this into practice, for many contemporary Buddhists, means embracing socialism. The Dalai Lama calls himself a Marxist, because "the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability." Robert Thurman believes that taking Buddhist statements about politics seriously would mean we should have "a welfare state" and "a rule of compassionate socialism." The Western Engaged Buddhism movement is largely focused on pursuing the progressive political ends of having the state take in and direct a greater portion of the economy.

But we ought to keep the Buddha's advice to the Kālāmas in mind and, instead of assuming, for instance, that the first way we think of for accomplishing a task is the right one, or that the most initially intuitive is obviously correct, we should instead critically examine our opinions and options and follow those paths that are skillful (i.e., move us toward accomplishing our goals) and "when you undertake them, they lead to welfare and happiness." We get ahead of ourselves and neglect what we're aiming at if we, for instance, jump from "The Buddha says the king should make sure the poor have enough to eat" to "Therefore we should have a socialist economic system." Important arguments are missing. Will socialism actually ensure the poor have enough to eat? Will socialism do better than alternative means? Even if socialism does an adequate job feeding the poor, does it come with other costs we ought to worry about?

The Dalai Lama possesses vast knowledge of Buddhism, but he is not an expert in economics or political science. We should thus no more assume he is correct about his specific advice regarding how to structure a modern economy than we would if he told us how to treat late stage pancreatic cancer. Likewise, when we look at the practical guidance the Buddha gives about kings, we should recognize that he lived in a structurally very different time, with vastly less knowledge about the social sciences, just as he lived in a time where medical procedures weren't as advanced as they are today. Instead, then, of slavishly sticking his practical specifics of the institutions extant at his time, we should look to the goals he set out and interrogate available methods, distinguishing those that are skillful from those that aren't, and adopting the former—even if it means abandoning some of our political and economic priors. (Politically engaged Buddhists, of course, already do this when they promote democracies and republics instead of the monarchies that feature in the Buddha's political discussions.)

Free Market Buddhism is thus, in part, a recognition that the ends of justice, peace, and prosperity don't, in fact, come from socialism and state control. The best way to ensure people aren't poor isn't to regulate the economy and massively redistribute wealth, but instead to govern lightly and enable economic growth to make everyone rich. The best way to promote peace is to not concentrate power in the hands of the people with guns and a penchant for fighting over territory. The best way to produce justice is to protect people's basic rights, and then leave them free to author their own lives.

Looking back at Nagarjuna guidelines, for example, we could have the state manufacture and distribute food so that “The protectorless, the wretched And the crippled equally to attain Food and drink without interruption.” But famines have been quite common in nations that’ve tried that, while countries with market economies rarely have widespread foot shortages, and the price of food is low enough that far fewer people ever go hungry. Similarly, nations with robust market economies recover much faster from natural disasters because their wealth enables them to provide release and rebuild. A free market in health care will mean better and more accessible services at lower cost than socialized medicine. Farmers in capitalist nations don’t need the state to give them seeds because they can buy affordable seeds easily, and they grow more than enough food for everyone. And the forces of competition markets unleash lead not to higher prices, but lower, and for ever increasing quality goods.

Too many contemporary Buddhists assume the political views they held before they came to Buddhism must be the best way to achieve the social values Buddhism encourages. They assume the institutions they already know are the best we can achieve. They assume their first impressions or gun instincts about economic justice and the causes of economic success and failure are accurate. This leads too many Buddhists to advocate systems like state socialism and Marxism that, in practice (as opposed to in theory), don't create wealth, don't feed the poor, don't promote justice, don't increase peace, and don't lead to prosperity. The Buddha tells the Kālāmas to not evaluate claims about how to achieve our ends based on authority, apriori reasoning, the appearance of competence, unexamined inference, or because they come from someone we are inclined to respect. Rather, we should look to whether those claims, when put into practice, produce the desired results.

That's a tall order, one that takes time, effort, and intellectual humility. But if we're undertaking a project as important as how to change the world for the better, it's at least worth making every effort to try.

The Role of Philosophical Consistency 

Free Market Buddhist subscriber Seth Dobson sent me this question.

At the risk of playing the "Who's a real libertarian?" game, it might be useful to contrast the view with the "folk" version of libertarianism described by Bonnie Kristian in her recent article for The Week.

"...what we might call 'pop libertarianism' or 'folk libertarianism' in America tends to be whatever the Republican Party is currently doing plus a few vague ideas about government overreach being bad when it inhibits what you, personally, would like to do."

The reason I bring this up is because my understanding of libertarianism is that it necessarily implies (requires?) a logical or philosophical consistency that non-libertarians generally ignore when formulating their views.

I'm interested in what Buddhism has to say about the need (if there is one) for logical/moral/philosophical consistency and how that relates to libertarianism.

This is a great question. It's true that most Americans aren't terribly consistent in their political views. For instance, there's robust data showing that voters will significantly change their opinion of a policy proposal based on whether they believe it's coming from a member of their own party or the other party. Politically, we tend to affiliate with our tribe, and support whatever political stances are popular within that tribe or with its leaders, even if those stances are radically different from what we supported not too long ago. If you associate with the Republican Party, you're likely to support whatever policies the GOP is currently keen on. Same with Democrats. In other words, most Americans act very much the way the Buddhas advises the Kālāmas not to.

What Kristian's describing is a form of that. There definitely are self-described libertarians who are basically just Republicans who maybe don't much mind people smoking pot. But this doesn't really undercut what libertarianism actually is, any more than the core ideas of progressivism are made irrelevant by self-described progressives tacking wherever the Democratic party wind blows.

That said, I do think libertarianism differs from policy preferences of two major parties in that libertarianism is a political ideology with a clear intellectual tradition, whereas what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican has historically been more coalitional. Democrats don't start with a core set of philosophical beliefs and then derive their policy preferences from those.

The further you get from the political mainstream, the more likely you are to find philosophically consistent political ideologies because the mainstream is dominated by political parties that constantly revise their policies to appeal to the median voter. Libertarians who are more like Republicans will thus have more ideologically inconsistent policy preferences than principled libertarians, just as progressives are more likely to be consistent the less tied they are to whatever is popular within the Democratic Party.

So what about the relationship between philosophical consistency in libertarianism and in Buddhism? One way to think of it is to see libertarianism as the politics you get if you take certain strong philosophical beliefs seriously. Or, as the Cakkavatti Sutta puts it, "relying only on principle—honoring, respecting, and venerating principle, having principle as your flag, banner, and authority."

Namely, if you believe it's wrong to use violence or the threat of violence to exercise power over others, and you believe that people have strong, but transferable, property rights—i.e., don't hit people and don't take their stuff—and you think we shouldn't make exceptions to those rules outside of circumstances of extreme need where there's no other choice, then you're likely to end up with a set of political views in line with libertarianism. Libertarianism is consistent in that it takes a simple set of foundational rules or guidelines and says we ought to live by them, and we should try our hardest to not make exceptions to them if we want to achieve a just, peaceful, and prosperous world.

Buddhism does much the same. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha set out the existence, cause, cessation, and path to cessation of suffering, the latter presented as the Eightfold Path. All of the rest of the complexity of Buddhist philosophy is built on top of that, but at its heart, Buddhism is the commitment to take seriously and put into practice a rather simple (albeit profound and counterintuitive) idea. And it says that we should try our hardest not to make exceptions to them if we want to achieve an end to suffering.

What led me to create this newsletter seeing that the consistency of Buddhism and libertarianism doesn't place them in conflict, but instead that their principles overlap.

Some Recommended Buddhism Readings

Several readers, new to Buddhism, have asked me what they might read to get started exploring the topic. Buddhism, of course, is rather large, with all the history, complexity, and variety of Western Philosophy, so no introduction can be anywhere near comprehensive, nor can it meet the needs and tastes of everyone.

My general advice to secular, philosophically minded people is to start with the Pali Canon tradition. These are the earliest records of the Buddha's words we have and they're generally accepted as authentic and authoritative by the various Buddhist schools that emerged and evolved later. These early texts, written in dialog form, are also remarkably easy and fun to read.

For getting started, I recommend the works of scholar monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu. He's an American who became a monk in the Thai Forest Tradition in Thailand, and then came back to the US and runs a monastery in San Diego. He's a spectacularly productive translator and writer and his website,, contains all of his work for free. (There's also a form you can fill out and mail to the Metta Forest Monastery and they'll send you paperback copies of his books entirely for free—you don't even pay shipping—if you prefer a physical format.)

If you are interested in Buddhism as philosophy, Thanissaro Bhikkhu's books are a wonderful place to start. He's a clear writer and his knowledge of Western Philosophy means he's able to express complex Buddhist ideas in ways accessible to those of us who came first from that tradition. For beginners, I recommend the very short The Buddha's Teachings, an introduction to the core ideas of Buddhism, and Refuge, a companion anthology of key texts from the Pali Canon. From there, I'd just begin exploring the other books he's written and the anthologies he's assembled, following your interests. You’ll also have enough of a foundation to pick up Buddhism books by other authors that strike your fancy, and I’ll have recommendations for those in a later newsletter.

It should be noted that Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a fundamentalist in the sense that he believes the Pali Canon is inerrant truth and that the Buddhism it represents is perfect and complete. He thus has no interest in later Buddhist traditions or developments in Buddhist philosophy and it's worth reading more broadly if you decide to stick with Buddhism. But as a place to start, his knowledge of these central texts is vast, and his skill at expressing their ideas in an accessible way makes him a perfect entry point.