The Pragmatic Buddhist Approach to Politics and Economics

The Buddha told us to interrogate our beliefs and discard those that aren’t helpful. This advice could radically change our politics.

Aaron Ross Powell
8 min readOct 5, 2020

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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.

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Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.