An Introduction to the Buddhist Argument for Political and Economic Liberty
I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for three years and a libertarian for twenty. I came to the latter through long conversations in college with my friend Trevor Burrus, who is now my Cato Institute colleague and my co-host on our Free Thoughts podcast.
I came to Buddhism by way of an interest in ancient philosophy. I’d long been a fan of the Greeks, and still am very much influenced by Aristotle. A few years back, I decided it’d be worth my time to branch out a bit, however, and I began with Buddhism. This meant that most of my early reading wasn’t contemporary Buddhist writers, but instead the Pali Canon and philosophical commentaries. I approached Buddhism the way I did the Greeks, reading primary sources, as well as academic works on those sources. A real delight in these early days was how much Buddhist dialogs read like their Greek contemporaries. (I’ve long thought the turn away from the dialog format in Western philosophy was a mistake, not just because dialogs are fun to read, but also because they are a better way to communicate and clarify complex philosophical ideas.)
Reading sutta anthologies, then commentary by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, then books like Buddhism as Philosophy to get a bigger picture, and then moving on to Mahayana texts, convinced me not only that Buddhism is interesting, but that at a basic level, it’s probably true. Buddhism successfully identifies the causes of suffering and offers the most plausible way to deal with them I’ve found. Eventually I became convinced enough to begin calling myself a Buddhist. That’s, of course, a very broad description masking a ton of variety. So if compelled to affix a label to my Buddhism, I’d say I’m a non-denominational, secular Buddhist, with my primary influence coming from the Pali Canon, but with a splash of Nagarjuna and Mahayana because of my interest in the development of Buddhist philosophy that occurred in that tradition. My personal meditation practice is largely vipassanā, and my family belongs to a Tibetan temple in the Kagyu lineage.
All of this research largely avoided political matters initially, because the foundational ideas of Buddhism aren’t much concerned with government and economics. Thus my emerging Buddhism remained mostly orthogonal to my day job of advocating for political and economic liberty. But then I came across Matthew J. Moore’s book, Buddhism and Political Theory, and was struck by, on the one hand, how compatible Buddhist ethics are with libertarianism, but also by how that was the opposite direction most politically engaged Buddhists went. This lead to a lot more research and, eventually, to the idea for book.
The core idea is that, counter to much of what politically engaged Buddhists argue, free markets and radical political liberty aren’t incompatible with Buddhist values. In fact, Buddhists ethics are quite supportive of both. The book, which I’m in the middle of drafting, is my personal statement of that. It’s me explaining why I don’t see a tension between my Buddhism and libertarianism and, in fact, why I think part of my attraction to Buddhism comes from how the Buddha’s commitment to non-harm and non-violence, which point towards a political system that respects the dignity of individuals and pushes back on the idea that we should use state violence to control their lives.
Which brings me to…
An Overview of the Argument
The book is a work in progress and the argument is still developing. But it’s probably worth giving an overview to provide context to future issues of this newsletter. There are basically two prongs. The first is to argue that much, if not all, of what states necessarily do violates Right Action, specifically the first two precepts. The very nature of the state is to use violence against people. Max Weber’s canonical definition of the state is the “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” If Buddhism prohibits killing and the state is the entity that claims a right to kill us (i.e., apply maximal physical force) if we disobey, then there’s an obvious incompatibility. Similarly, Buddhism tells us we must not take what is not freely given. But government depends for its very livelihood on taking resources, in the form of taxation, from people who wouldn’t otherwise give them, and does this by threatening violence if they refuse. Thus a full understanding of what the state is shows it as, at the very least, problematic from a Buddhist standpoint.
But my case is broader than that. I’ve argued elsewhere that claims that we have an obligation to obey and support the state ultimately fail, but quite a lot of people, Buddhists included, disagree with me. So I also want to show that free markets aren’t antithetical to Buddhism but, instead, the best way we have to realize Buddhist values, to approach each other with compassion, and to enable people to lead lives where they have the luxury of Buddhist practice. The Buddha was remarkably friendly to commerce, seeing no problem with his lay followers acting as merchants, so long as they avoided harmful trades. (Incidentally, some of those trades are the very one’s governments are most active in.) He also didn’t see the inequality that can result from market success as necessarily a problem, and told wealthy merchants they could use a significant portion of their earnings to make themselves and their families comfortable — provided they set aside a good chunk of it for helping those less fortunate. If we care about the global poor, we should want to see more nations embrace free markets, not fewer. We should recognize that there has never been a more powerful tool for ending poverty than free trade coupled with limited government involvement in the economy.
A lot of Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, aren’t on board with that, of course. The Dalai Lama has said he’s a socialist because capitalism is based on greed and socialism on compassion. But the Dalai Lama isn’t an economist and, from looking at what he’s had to say on the matter, it’s clear that his understanding of economics isn’t deep. (Which is fine, as his area of expertise is elsewhere.) His views on capitalism vs. socialism fit with what I’ll call the “folk economics” common to a lot of Buddhist activists. I’ll argue that this understanding has things backwards, and that markets are much more driven by compassion, and a desire to meet the needs of others, than socialist policies, which have a track record of harming those they claim to help. I also try to show that Buddhist concerns about markets promoting consumerism are largely misplaced and, to the extent they have teeth, they actually counsel more against expanding the sphere of politics. (Look for my article on political consumerism coming soon. I’ll include a link in a future newsletter when it’s published.)
Furthermore, when we look to what the Buddha actually said about politics, we find that his expectations of the state were quite limited. Comparing his ideal monarch to modern governments today is rather striking. They vastly exceed the scope set out in, for instance, the Ten Duties of the King.
In the end, though, my goal with The Free Market Buddhist is modest. I’m not going to convince every Buddhist that the only reasonable path in politics is libertarianism. But I do want rehabilitate libertarianism from a Buddhist perspective. I want to make it an acceptable way to pursue Buddhist values in the political sphere. As a Buddhist, you aren’t required to reject free markets. You aren’t required to see them as, as best, a necessary evil. Buddhist libertarianism has strong roots in Buddhist philosophy, and it ought to be taken more seriously by practitioners hoping to move the world in a more enlightened direction. There are a lot of pieces to the project, and I hope you’ll join me as I explore them.
Some Preliminary Resources
While I’m still getting this Free Market Buddhist project off the ground, here’s some of my work elsewhere that might be of interest. The episode of my Free Thoughts podcast with Matthew J. Moore is a good overview of Buddhist political theory.
For a background on Buddhism and my relationship to it, listen to this episode of my personal podcast with Jason Kuznicki.
And if you want to look at an early and rough version of my argument for Buddhist libertarianism based on the first two precepts, take a look at this article on Libertariansim.org.
Until Next Time
My plan is for this newsletter to be a running record of my thoughts on Buddhist libertarianism, as well as links to the resources I’m finding helpful or interesting as I research Buddhist politics while writing the book, and keep at it after it’s published. I hope you’ll find the discussions rewarding. And I also hope you’ll let me know if you disagree with anything, or would like me to discuss topics. I want this to be a conversation.
Thank you for being a part of it.