Part 2

Optimal Consumption

by EF Schumacher Icon

Buddhist Economics focuses on optimal consumption, Economics focuses on optimal production

Buddhist economics tries to maximise human satisfactions by the optimal pattern of consumption.

Modern economics tries to maximise consumption through the optimal pattern of production.

A life which aims for the optimal consumption will need less effort than a life which aims for maximum consumption. *

  • Therefore, it is not surprising that the pressure and strain of living is very much less in Burma than in the US, despite the US having so much more labour-saving machinery.

*Superphysics Note: This matches our Effort Theory of Value which aims for minimizing toil and trouble, while maximizing happiness

Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related.

  • The optimal pattern of consumption produces a high degree of human satisfaction through a relatively low rate of consumption.

It allows people to:

  • live without great pressure and strain, and
  • fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: “Cease to do evil; try to do good.”

Physical resources are everywhere limited. People satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use.

Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.

From the point of view of Buddhist economics:

  • production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, and
  • dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic.

It is justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale.

The modern economist would admit that a high rate of consumption of transport services between a man’s home and his place of work signifies a misfortune and not a high standard of life.

  • He would view the increase in the number of ton/miles per head of the population carried by a country’s transport system as proof of economic progress.

But the Buddhist economist would view it as a highly undesirable deterioration in the pattern of consumption. In the same way, the Buddhist economist would hold that to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than from sources nearby signifies failure rather than success.

Another striking difference between modern economics and Buddhist economics arises over the use of natural resources.

Bertrand de Jouvenel was an eminent French political philosopher.

  • He characterised “Western man” in words which may be taken as a fair description of the modern economist.
  • He tends to count nothing as an expenditure, other than human effort.
  • He does not seem to mind how much
    • mineral matter he wastes and,
    • far worse, how much living matter he destroys.
  • He does not seem to realize at all that human life is a dependent part of an ecosystem of many different forms of life.

The world is ruled from towns where men are cut off from any form of life other than human, the feeling of belonging to an ecosystem is not revived. This results in a harsh and improvident treatment of things upon which we ultimately depend, such as water and trees.

The teaching of the Buddha, on the other hand, enjoins a reverent and non-violent attitude not only to all sentient beings but also, with great emphasis, to trees.

Every follower of the Buddha should plant a tree every few years and look after it until it is safely established. The Buddhist economist can easily show that the universal observation of this rule would result in a high rate of genuine economic development independent of any foreign aid.

Much of the economic decay of southeast Asia (as of many other parts of the world) is undoubtedly due to a heedless and shameful neglect of trees.

Modern economics does not distinguish between renewable and non-renewable materials, as its very method is to equalise and quantify everything by means of a money price.

Thus, taking various alternative fuels, like coal, oil, wood, or water-power: the only difference between them recognised by modern economics is relative cost per equivalent unit.

The cheapest is automatically the one to be preferred, as to do otherwise would be irrational and “uneconomic.” From a Buddhist point of view, of course, this will not do; the essential difference between non-renewable fuels like coal and oil on the one hand and renewable fuels like wood and water-power on the other cannot be simply overlooked.

Non-renewable goods must be used only if they are indispensable, and then only with the greatest care and the most meticulous concern for conservation. To use them heedlessly or extravagantly is an act of violence, and while complete non-violence may not be attainable on this earth, there is nonetheless an ineluctable duty on man to aim at the ideal of non-violence in all he does.

A modern European economist would not consider it a great achievement if all European art treasures were sold to America at attractive prices.

Likewise the Buddhist economist would insist that a population basing its economic life on non-renewable fuels is living parasitically, on capital instead of income. Such a way of life could have no permanence. It could therefore be justified only as a purely temporary expedient.

The world’s resources of non-renewable fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas are:

  • exceedingly unevenly distributed, and
  • limited in quantity.

Their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.

Buddhist Economics Should be Implemented Instead of Modern Economics

This fact alone might give food for thought even to those people in Buddhist countries who:

  • care nothing for the religious and spiritual values of their heritage
  • ardently desire to embrace the materialism of modern economics most quickly

Before they dismiss Buddhist economics as nothing better than a nostalgic dream, they might wish to consider whether the path of economic development outlined by modern economics will lead them to places where they really want to be.

Towards the end of his courageous book The Challenge of Man’s Future, Professor Harrison Brown of the California Institute of Technology concludes that Industrial society is:

  • fundamentally unstable
  • subject to reversion to agrarian existence

So within it, the conditions which offer individual freedom cannot avoid the conditions which impose rigid organization and totalitarian control.

When we examine all the difficulties which threaten the survival of industrial civilization, it is difficult to see how the achievement of stability and the maintenance of individual liberty can be made compatible.

Even if this were dismissed as a long-term view, there is the immediate question of whether “modernization,” as currently practiced without regard to religious and spiritual values, is actually producing agreeable results.

As far as the masses are concerned, the results appear to be disastrous. It would lead to:

  • a collapse of the rural economy,
  • a rising tide of unemployment in town and country, and
  • the growth of a city proletariat without nourishment for body or soul.

Both immediate experience and long term prospects show that the study of Buddhist economics is recommended even to those who believe that economic growth is more important than any spiritual or religious values.

It is not a question of choosing between “modern growth” and “traditional stagnation.”

  • It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding “Right Livelihood.”

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